Found on Medieval Teeth
Researchers at the Center for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich have called the
discovery of plaque on the teeth of a one thousand year-old skeleton a “microbiological Pompeii,” after finding a high concentration of genetic
material and numerous pathogens. The Middle
Ages-era periodontitis was likely caused by the
same pathogens as today.
The discovery is based on the extraordinary properties of mineralized plaque—bacteria, food particles,
and other substances can remain very well preserved
over hundreds of years, in contrast to bone material
which is contaminated relatively quickly after death
and loses most of its genetic material.
“Tartar acts as a long-term memory for the
bacterial flora of the mouth, as well as for food
and environmental particles,” explains Christina
Warinner, formerly at the University of Zurich and
now at the University of Oklahoma. “From this we
can draw conclusions about the state of health
of an individual and obtain information on the life-
style and personal preferences.”
The scientists found numerous opportunistic
pathogens in the tartar, as well as the cause of
periodontal disease. Essentially it was the same
pathogen, which still causes the disease despite
significant changes in dental hygiene and nutrition.
Furthermore, the medieval oral flora already
possessed numerous gene families, which can
develop resistance to antibiotics—more than eight
centuries before the first therapeutic use of antibiotics. Besides references to the specimen’s
health, scientists also found genetic traces of
food components, including various crops and
vegetables, which are otherwise difficult to detect
with conventional archaeological methods.
For the first time, large quantities of genetic material have been isolated and decrypted from medieval
tartar. This essential parts of the genome of periodontal bacteria could be reconstructed, and it was the
first hereditary material found from food components.
The analysis of the highly complex mixture of
fragmented genetic material represents an enormous challenge because millions of anonymous
individual fragments have to be composed, similar
to a large puzzle. This may relate to complex algorithms and bioinformatics methods being used.
“For us this is a very exciting material—tartar is a
window into the past, and possibly the best-avail-
able source for historical bacteria in the human en-
vironment,” says Professor Christian von Mering.
As Professor Matthew Collins of the University
of York explains, it’s already known that tartar contains microscopic food components and particles
from the environment. “The richness of detail
found here is impressive. The oral flora is trapped
and petrified, almost like the victims of Pompeii.”
The discovery points the way to a better un-
derstanding of tooth and gum disease, and
shows how the human oral flora has historically
developed and adapted.
“We need the information on the historical
colonization of humans with bacterial communities,” says Professor Frank Rühli, one of the main
leaders of the study and director of the Center for
Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich.
“So we can further develop modern medicine.”
Continued on page 25
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