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Pompeii: the human genome of a victim sequenced for the first time

Researchers studied the remains of two individuals found in a building known as the Craftsman’s House, a dwelling in the densely populated center of Pompeii, and distilled their DNA, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

Pompeii was home to up to 20,000 people before it was destroyed in the eruption, which was visible over 40 kilometers (25 miles). More than 2,000 people died as a direct result. The city was buried under a 23-foot-deep layer of ash and debris after the volcanic explosion, which preserved the ruins from the adverse effects of time and climate. It has since become a popular tourist destination, as well as a rich study site for archaeologists.

The structure, shape and length of the two skeletons suggest that one set of remains belonged to a 35 to 40-year-old man when he died, while the other skeletal remains were from a 50-year-old woman.

Although scientists were able to obtain ancient DNA from both individuals, they were only able to sequence the entire genome from the man’s remains because there were gaps in the sequences extracted from the woman’s remains.

“Pompeii is one of the most unique and remarkable archaeological sites on the planet, and it is one of the reasons why we know so much about the classical world. Being able to work and contribute to add more knowledge about this unique place is amazing,” Gabriele Scorrano, assistant professor in the Department of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen and lead author of the study, told CNN via email.

Pompeii is one of the most studied archaeological sites in the world, but obtaining detailed genetic information from the skeletal remains preserved at Pompeii has long eluded scientists.

Prior to this latest study, only short portions of mitochondrial DNA from human and animal remains from Pompeii had been sequenced, according to a press release announcing the study.

Scorrano said it might have been possible to successfully extract ancient DNA from their samples, as the pyroclastic material – a burning mixture of gas, lava and debris – dumped during the eruption could have protected the DNA from environmental factors, such as oxygen in the atmosphere which led to decomposition.

“Individuals at Pompeii were not in direct contact with volcanic lava, but were instead shrouded in volcanic ash,” Scorrano said.

He said it created an oxygen-free environment, which helped preserve DNA in the skeletal remains.

“One of the main drivers of DNA degradation is oxygen (the other being water). Temperature acts more like a catalyst, speeding up the process. Therefore, if there is little d oxygen, there is a limit to the amount of DNA degradation that can take place,” Scorrano added.

Genome analysis has shed light on the genetic diversity of the human population that lived on the Italian peninsula when Pompeii was destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago.

The scientists compared the DNA of the man’s remains with that of 1,030 ancient people and 471 individuals from West Eurasia.

Their findings show that he shared similar DNA with modern Central Italians and other people who lived in Italy during the Roman Imperial era, which spanned from 27 BC to 476 AD.

Pompeii: the human genome of a victim sequenced for the first time

Further analysis of the male individual’s mitochondrial DNA, which relates to his matrilineal ancestry, and his Y chromosome, which reflects the male lineage, also revealed clusters of genes commonly found in Sardinia, but not among other people who resided in Italy. in Roman imperial times.

“It’s important because it shows there’s still a lot we don’t know about genetic diversity during the time of the Roman Empire, and how it affected modern Italians and other Mediterranean populations.” , said Scorrano.

Pompeii: the human genome of a victim sequenced for the first time

The researchers also linked lesions found during analysis of the male individual’s skeleton and DNA to mycobacterium – the type of bacteria linked to tuberculosis, suggesting that he had the disease before his death. dead.

“Participating in a study like this was a great privilege, Pompeii is a unique context in every way, the anthropological makes it possible to study a human community involved in a natural disaster,” said Scorrano.

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