Charges were dropped from Columbus: the traveler did not bring syphilis to Europe. The disease has an ancient relative

(ORDO NEWS) — Scientists have cleared Columbus of accusations that it was he who brought the disease to Europe.

The causative agent of syphilis, which remains, although not as big as in the past, but still a serious problem for mankind, is one of the four subspecies of pale treponema – Treponema pallidum pallidum.

The other three subspecies cause no less unpleasant diseases – yaws, pint and bejel – but there are they are today generally found only in tropical and subtropical regions.

In Europe, syphilis was especially rampant in the 15th-18th centuries, and according to a common, although unproven version, it was brought to the continent by Christopher Columbus, who returned from America in 1493 with his team.

But as an international research team led by Professor Verena Schünemann of the University of Zurich recently found, treponema pallidum was common in Europe long before Columbus’ voyage.

Scientists examined the remains of four people from Finland, Estonia and the Netherlands, whose DNA test showed the presence of treponematosis.

With the help of traditional radiocarbon analysis and molecular dating, it was possible to establish that the genome of the bacterial pathogen belongs to the period of the 15th-18th centuries.

In addition to syphilis itself, yaws, which is transmitted through simple skin contact, was also found in the remains.

“Our data show that yaws was common in Europe during that period. Its distribution area was not limited to the tropics as it is today,” says Verena Schünemann.

However, the discoveries did not end there. In one of the skeletons from the Netherlands, scientists found a hitherto unknown line of treponema, which, in all likelihood, developed along with syphilis and yaws, but today it no longer exists as a disease.

According to the authors of the study , this lineage is related to all modern varieties of treponema, and it seems that various subspecies circulated in Europe of that period, which overlapped each other, affecting the same owner.

Using this discovery of theirs as an object of genetic analysis, scientists were able for the first time to accurately date the developmental tree of pale treponema.

As it turned out, its subspecies that exist today have evolved for at least 2500 years, and the last common ancestor of all strains that cause syphilis dates back to the period from the 12th to the 16th century.

“Accordingly, the syphilis epidemic could hardly have been caused by Columbus’ trip to Europe alone,” Professor Schünemann concludes. “Different treponematoses could develop together, and then exchange genetic material before or during the establishment of intercontinental contacts.”

Schünemann believes that such a conclusion raises new questions about the development and spread of the disease, and perhaps also the need to reconsider existing views on syphilis and other related diseases.


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