Human genome of Pompeii victim is sequenced for first time: 35-year-old man killed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius 1,900 years ago may have suffered from TUBERCULOSIS, scientists say

  • Researchers studied the remains of a man who perished in Pompeii’s Casa del Fabbro 1,900 years ago
  • They compared the man’s genome with DNA from ancient and modern western Eurasian individuals
  • He shared most similarities with modern central Italians, and people who lived in Italy in Roman Imperial age
  • The analysis of his genome also suggests he was suffering from tuberculosis at the time of his death 

Before the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, Pompeii was a thriving city with a population of up to 20,000 people.

Now, scientists have delved deeper into the lives of Pompeii’s victims, by sequencing the genome of a man killed in the devastating eruption 1,900 years ago. 

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen say the man was between 35 and 40 years old when he died and may have been suffering from tuberculosis prior to his death.

The team hopes the technique could be applied to other victims caught in the eruption, to uncover new details about their lives.

‘The findings demonstrate the possibility to retrieve ancient DNA from Pompeiian human remains and provide further insight into the genetic history and lives of this population,’ the team, led by Dr Gabriele Scorrano, wrote in their study, published in Scientific Reports.

In the new study, the researchers studied the remains of two people who perished in Pompeii’s Casa del Fabbro (House of the Craftsman)

What is a genome? 

The genome is the entire set of DNA instructions found in a cell. 

In humans, the genome consists of 23 pairs of chromosomes located in the cell’s nucleus, as well as a small chromosome in the cell’s mitochondria. 

A genome contains all the information needed for an individual to develop and function. 

The first decoding of a human genome – completed in 2003 as part of the Human Genome Project – took 15 years and cost £2.15 billion ($3bn).

A group of 24 international scientists want to collect and store the genetic codes of all 1.5 million known plants, animals and fungi over the next decade.

The resulting library of life could be used by scientists to find out more about the evolution of species and how to improve our environment.

Genome sequencing is a method used to ‘read’ DNA and can be used to determine the entire genetic makeup of a specific organism.

While previous studies have sequenced small stretches of mitochondrial DNA from human and animal Pompeii victims, until now, the entire human genome has not been sequenced.

In the new study, the researchers studied the remains of two people who perished in Pompeii’s Casa del Fabbro (House of the Craftsman).

Based on the shape, structure and length of their skeletons, the researchers suggest that one set of remains belonged to a male who was 35 to 40 years old, and measured 5ft 4inches tall when he died.

The other set of remains likely belonged to a female, who was aged over 50 years old and 4ft 9inches at the time of her death.

The team extracted ancient DNA from both individuals but could only sequence the entire genome from the male’s remains.

By comparing the man’s genome with DNA from 1,030 other ancient and 471 modern western Eurasian individuals, the researchers could begin piecing together his life.

The findings suggest that the man shared the most similarities with modern central Italians, and other people who lived in Italy during the Roman Imperial age.

However, the team also found that the man’s mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA had groups of genes that are commonly found in people from the island of Sardinia.

Tuberculosis (TB) is a potentially serious infectious disease that mainly affects your lungs. 

The bacteria that cause tuberculosis are spread from one person to another through tiny droplets released into the air via coughs and sneezes. 

Although your body may harbor the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, your immune system usually can prevent you from becoming sick. 

For this reason, doctors make a distinction between Latent and Active TB.

Symptoms of active TB include coughing up blood, weight loss, fatigue, and chest pain, and fever.

Tuberculosis can also affect other parts of your body, including your kidneys, spine or brain.  

Source: Mayo Clinic 

‘This suggests that there may have been high levels of genetic diversity across the Italian Peninsula during this time,’ the team explained.

The analysis of his genome also suggests that the man was suffering from tuberculosis at the time of his death.

The researchers uncovered DNA sequences that are commonly found in Mycobacterium – the group of bacteria that the tuberculosis-causing bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis belongs to.

‘It is already known that tuberculosis was endemic in the Roman Imperial period thanks to the writings and ancient descriptions,’ the researchers wrote.

‘The increased population density that characterised the beginning of the Roman era, probably due to the development of an urban Roman way of life, favoured the spread of tuberculosis across Italy.’

Retrieving ancient DNA can often prove tricky, as environmental factors such as atmospheric oxygen can degrade DNA.

However, the researchers suggest that pyroclastic material – the cloud of ash and lava fragments released during the eruption – may have actually helped to protect the man’s DNA.

Mount Vesuvius erupted in the year AD 79, burying the cities of Pompeii, Oplontis, and Stabiae under ashes and rock fragments, and the city of Herculaneum under a mudflow.  

Mount Vesuvius, on the west coast of Italy, is the only active volcano in continental Europe and is thought to be one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.  

Every single resident died instantly when Pomepeii was hit by a 500°C pyroclastic hot surge.

Pyroclastic flows are a dense collection of hot gas and volcanic materials that flow down the side of an erupting volcano at high speed.

They are more dangerous than lava because they travel faster, at speeds of around 450mph (700 km/h), and at temperatures of 1,000°C.

How Pompeii and Herculaneum were wiped off the map by devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius 2,000 years ago

What happened?  

Mount Vesuvius erupted in the year AD 79, burying the cities of Pompeii, Oplontis, and Stabiae under ashes and rock fragments, and the city of Herculaneum under a mudflow.  

Mount Vesuvius, on the west coast of Italy, is the only active volcano in continental Europe and is thought to be one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.  

Every single resident died instantly when the southern Italian town was hit by a 500°C pyroclastic hot surge.

Pyroclastic flows are a dense collection of hot gas and volcanic materials that flow down the side of an erupting volcano at high speed.

They are more dangerous than lava because they travel faster, at speeds of around 450mph (700 km/h), and at temperatures of 1,000°C.

An administrator and poet called Pliny the younger watched the disaster unfold from a distance. 

Letters describing what he saw were found in the 16th century.  

His writing suggests that the eruption caught the residents of Pompeii unaware.

Mount Vesuvius erupted in the year AD 79, burying the cities of Pompeii, Oplontis, and Stabiae under ashes and rock fragments, and the city of Herculaneum under a mudflow

He said that a column of smoke ‘like an umbrella pine’ rose from the volcano and made the towns around it as black as night.

People ran for their lives with torches, screaming and some wept as rain of ash and pumice fell for several hours.  

While the eruption lasted for around 24 hours, the first pyroclastic surges began at midnight, causing the volcano’s column to collapse.

An avalanche of hot ash, rock and poisonous gas rushed down the side of the volcano at 124mph (199kph), burying victims and remnants of everyday life.  

Hundreds of refugees sheltering in the vaulted arcades at the seaside in Herculaneum, clutching their jewelry and money, were killed instantly.

The Orto dei fuggiaschi (The garden of the Fugitives) shows the 13 bodies of victims who were buried by the ashes as they attempted to flee Pompeii during the 79 AD eruption of the Vesuvius volcano

As people fled Pompeii or hid in their homes, their bodies were covered by blankets of the surge.

While Pliny did not estimate how many people died, the event was said to be ‘exceptional’ and the number of deaths is thought to exceed 10,000.

What have they found?

This event ended the life of the cities but at the same time preserved them until rediscovery by archaeologists nearly 1700 years later.

The excavation of Pompeii, the industrial hub of the region and Herculaneum, a small beach resort, has given unparalleled insight into Roman life.

Archaeologists are continually uncovering more from the ash-covered city.

In May archaeologists uncovered an alleyway of grand houses, with balconies left mostly intact and still in their original hues.

A plaster cast of a dog, from the House of Orpheus, Pompeii, AD 79. Around 30,000 people are believed to have died in the chaos, with bodies still being discovered to this day

Some of the balconies even had amphorae – the conical-shaped terra cotta vases that were used to hold wine and oil in ancient Roman times.

The discovery has been hailed as a ‘complete novelty’ – and the Italian Culture Ministry hopes they can be restored and opened to the public.

Upper stores have seldom been found among the ruins of the ancient town, which was destroyed by an eruption of Vesuvius volcano and buried under up to six meters of ash and volcanic rubble.

Around 30,000 people are believed to have died in the chaos, with bodies still being discovered to this day. 

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