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Book Review

Paleomicrobiology of Humans

Edited by Michel Drancour & Didier Raoult
2016, ASM Press
196 pages, paper
ISBN-10: 1555819168
ISBN-13: 978-1555819163
$90 from the publisher, as low as $52 elsewhere

The field of microbiology is hot right now. Cutting-edge tools are leading to breakthroughs in the human microbiome that are showing the microbes to be in control (or influential in the very least) to many aspects of our lives and health. Many books delving into microbiology are even showing up on the bestseller lists; David Quammen’s The Tangled Tree and Eugenia Bone’s Microbia, are notable examples. Paleomicrobiology of Humans is the first comprehensive book to examine so many aspects of a new, multidisciplinary, scientific field that’s taking microbiology research into a new direction.

Paleomicrobiology is a new field that aims to identify past epidemics at the crossroads of different specialties such as anthropology, medicine, molecular biology, and microbiology. Mysteries being solved by paleomicrobiologists include the recognition of human remains associated with epidemic outbreaks and the graves associated with disasters. Also, a better understanding of the history of epidemics, helps to understand the evolution of the history of human beings since now we can find the genetic markers associated with humans, like the gene HLA-LILR inherited from archaic hominids (Neanderthals or Denisovans) in some populations that presumably have survived due to their resistance to some epidemic pathogens. Paleomicrobiology also helps to track the human migrations. This book has many fascinating discussions of the materials used in paleomicrobiology studies including mummies (not always human), arthropod pests of humans (especially lice), all manner of pathogens (fungal, bacterial—the same pests of modern humans), bones, teeth, even coprolites (fossil feces—which are often inside the GI tract of dead animals and mummies). Use of the dental pulp as a source of genetic material was first used in paleomicrobiology before being used in human genetics. The utilization of the dental pulp as a source of DNA research by PCR molecular techniques was initially the subject of a controversy about the authenticity of the results— and is discussed at length. This controversy, which lasted more than 10 years, is resolved now. The polemics about the initial results concerning plague led to a general reflection on the plague pandemics, which in its turn led to a conclusion that the plague pandemics were probably provoked by the outbreaks of lice—not rat fleas as was long-thought (and that’s the way I was taught as an undergrad).

Only recently was it determined that two of the world’s most devastating plagues, the plague of Justinian and the medieval Black Death, were caused by distinct strains of the same pathogen. Use of paleomicrobiological techniques led to this discovery. This work is just one example of the historical mysteries that this emerging field has helped to clarify. Others, such as when tuberculosis began to afflict humans, the role of lice in plague pandemics, and the history of smallpox, are explored and further illuminated in Paleomicrobiology of Humans.

Paleomicrobiology of Humans is actually a monograph of many papers submitted by experts in the field. The editors, Michel Drancourt and Didier Raoult, and the book’s expert contributors address larger issues using paleomicrobiology. These include the identification of human remains associated with epidemic outbreaks, identification of the graves associated with disasters, and the discovery of demographic structures that reveal the presence of an epidemic moment. In addition, this book reviews the technical approaches and controversies associated with recovering and sequencing very old DNA and surveys modern human diseases that have ancient roots. Thus, this book is of great interest not only to microbiologists but to medical historians and anthropologists as well.

Topics include: Demographic Patterns Distinctive of Epidemic Cemeteries in Archaeological Samples; Characterization of the Funeral Groups Associated with Plague Epidemics; Paleogenetics and Past Infections: the Two Faces of the Coin of Human Immune Evolution; A Personal View of How Paleomicrobiology Aids Our Understanding of the Role of Lice in Plague Pandemics; Sources of materials for Paleomicrobiology; Paleomicrobiology Data: Authentification and Interpretation; Human Coprolites as a Source for Paleomicrobiology; Ancient Resistome; The History Of Epidemic Typhus; Paleopathology of Human Infections: Old Bones, Antique Books, Ancient and Modern Molecules; Past Bartonelloses; Paleomicrobiology Of Human Tuberculosis; Paleomicrobiology of Leprosy; Past Intestinal Parasites; Paleopathology and Paleomicrobiology of Malaria; History of Smallpox and Its Spread in Human Populations; Cholera; and Human Lice in Paleoentomology and Paleomicrobiology.

Smallpox has been wiped from the face of the earth (save a couple of heavily-guarded research lab freezers) but was once the worst scourge of humanity, replacing bubonic plague as Europe’s most feared disease in the 17th century. The history of this virus is fascinating reading. The first epidemics in North America occurred in 1617-1619 in Massachusetts as a result of colonization by European settlers. Untold millions of native inhabitants of the New World, possessing no immunity, perished during this colonial period. But where and when did the virus first find its way to human hosts? Egyptian mummies from more than 3,000 years ago provide clues.

How do epidemics begin in humans? Furthermore, why do epidemics start, become widespread and seem to end, only to begin again decades or centuries later? Using modern DNA-based tools, scientists have determined that tuberculosis, like humans, came “out of Africa,” 35-40,000 years ago in the case of the bacterium. And have even traced it to bacteria that were pathogenic in other mammals before humans. Thus it was not the exact same organism lying dormant somewhere; rather, it was a completely new super-virulent strain that got going anew.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi