New study shows virus traces in historical skeletal material

6 September 2018

A new international study shows the importance of studying historical skeletal material to increase knowledge about how viruses develop.

The researchers in this study have carried out genetic analyses of skeletal material from people from different periods and different parts of the world. Sabine Sten, Professor of Osteoarcheology at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala University Campus Gotland, is one of the co-authors of the article.

Portrait of Sabine Sten.
Sabine Sten, Professor of Osteoarcheology.
Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

She is an osteologist, which means that she studies skeletal parts or full skeletons of both humans and animals in archaeological material.

“In this study I have helped, along with a researcher from Copenhagen University, to obtain parts of Viking Age skeletons from Gotland, which have then undergone further analysis at the Centre for GeoGenetics, Natural History Museum of Denmark. Genetic analyses can be used to see which predispositions for disease an individual has; and this cannot always be seen by studying the skeleton using only osteological methods,” she says.

In their DNA analyses the researchers found traces of a virus, parvovirus B19, which causes the disease called fifth disease. This is an airborne infection that gives symptoms like a rash, pain, fever and sometimes joint troubles in adults.
“What is interesting and important is that DNA traces have been found of the same virus in skeletons from different parts of the world and different periods of time. This shows how people have moved between different places in the world, making it possible to study how and when diseases have spread across the ages,” says Sten.
“This may be one of the first finds of this kind made using historical osteological material,” she notes.

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The article “Ancient human parvovirus B19 in Eurasia reveals its long-term association with humans” was published in the scientific journal called PNAS on 2 July.