April 22, 2024

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Syphilis Cases Surge in US: Where Did This Bacterium Come From?

Syphilis Cases Surge in US: Where Did This Bacterium Come From?

Syphilis Cases Surge in US: Where Did This Bacterium Come From?

An analysis of the genome of syphilis bacteria from DNA of humans who lived on the eastern coast of Brazil about 1,600 years ago and compared it with 98 registered genomes of syphilis bacteria revealed that three subspecies of syphilis bacteria diverged from a common ancestor about 10,000 years ago, according to a study published in Nature.

What do the musician Schubert, the painter Manet, and the philosopher Nietzsche have in common? They all suffered from syphilis and ultimately died from it. Schubert died at the age of 31 from mercury poisoning during syphilis treatment, Manet died at 51 after a leg amputation surgery complication, and Nietzsche spent over 10 years in a mental institution due to neurological damage and mental disorders before passing away at 56 (although some argue it was due to a brain tumor, not syphilis).

Syphilis, an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, was often fatal during their time, but its incidence dramatically decreased with the advent of antibiotics in the mid-20th century. However, recent news indicates a resurgence of syphilis. Japanese authorities estimated that the number of syphilis patients in 2023 doubled to about 17,000 from 7,978 in 2021. In the United States, cases of congenital syphilis (transmitted from pregnant women to their fetuses) have increased by over 11 times in just 10 years.

From a historical perspective, syphilis can be seen as the only revenge (though unintended) of the people of the New World, trampled by the people of the Old World at the end of the 15th century. Syphilis, originally a disease of the Inca Empire, spread to Europe through the Columbus expeditions and reached Asia and Africa within a few decades, claiming many lives over several centuries. So, when did syphilis start afflicting humanity?

Last month, the academic journal Nature published a paper presenting the decoded genome of syphilis bacteria from human bones about 1,600 years old found in the coastal ruins of Jabuticabeira II in Santa Catarina, Brazil. Researchers from multinational institutions, including the University of Zurich in Switzerland, extracted DNA from the bone samples and analyzed the syphilis bacteria, confirming its presence in four samples. All of these belonged to the subspecies of syphilis bacteria that cause benign endemic syphilis, known as Treponema endemicum, as opposed to the sexually transmitted syphilis caused by Treponema pallidum.

The genome of Treponema endemicum was decoded by 99% from one of the samples, and researchers compared it with the DNA base sequence data of 98 known genomes. As a result, it was found that three subspecies of syphilis bacteria currently existing diverged from a common ancestor about 10,000 years ago. This suggests that thousands of years ago, people in the New World were infected with different types of syphilis depending on the region, and they spread to the Old World through different routes.

However, this study alone does not reveal how syphilis bacteria were originally transmitted to humans. There are two scenarios: one where people who migrated to the New World 15,000 to 23,000 years ago were infected with the common ancestor of syphilis bacteria from local animals and then dispersed to live, evolving into subspecies of syphilis bacteria, and another where already evolved subspecies of syphilis bacteria were individually transmitted from animals in each region. Subsequent genome studies are expected to clearly reconstruct the evolutionary history of syphilis bacteria.

Syphilis Cases Surge in US: Where Did This Bacterium Come From?

Syphilis Cases Surge in US: Where Did This Bacterium Come From?

(source:internet, reference only)

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