Genetics: completely decoded genome from Pompeii

Pompeii, buried by Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. The city is of particular interest to science as an archaeological time capsule, explains geneticist Gabriele Scorrano of the universities of Rome and Copenhagen: “In Pompeii, we have the opportunity to gain insight into a specific time window of human history because we know exactly when Mount Vesuvius erupted.”

In addition, some of the buried buildings and the remains of residents are still in very good condition, because they were protected against oxygen, among others, by volcanic ash.

Chromosomal DNA from Pompeii

So far, scientists have only succeeded in sequencing short sections of the genome of Pompeii. Due to technical limitations, they mainly used genetic material from the deceased’s mitochondria. Usually, however, the entire genome is studied using DNA from the chromosomes.

Scorrano and an international research team have proven that it is also possible to analyze the chromosomal DNA of Pompeii inhabitants. According to the Italian genetics, this was only possible because the samples were in good condition. Experts are now presenting the results in the journal Scientific Reports.

Died in the “Craftsman’s House”

In particular, they looked at the genetic material of two dead from the so-called “Casa del fabbro” (Polish: “House of the craftsman”). The research group used parts of the rock bone, the bone inside the skull. One of the people was found in an elongated position, the other crouched down. Due to certain features on the bones, it was suspected for some time that it was male and female.

Note on the Scavi di Antichità, 1934, p. 286, fig. 10

Thanks to a more detailed analysis of the genetic material and the first complete sequencing of the human genome of an inhabitant of Pompeii, the research team was finally able to clarify that the buried victims were of different sexes. The man was about 35 to 40 years old, the woman was over 50. Both were of average height.

Relatives in Sardinia

Ultimately, the experts were only able to use samples from the deceased male to fully sequence the genome. The woman’s DNA was not suitable for this because of too many gaps. They then compared the data with the genomes of more than 1,000 people from past eras and nearly 500 people now living in western Eurasia. They found evidence that the Pompeian man had relatives on the Italian island of Sardinia.

According to Scorrano, this is actually not too surprising. It is interesting, however, that the Sardinian gene groups were not present in other people of that time living on the continent of today’s Italy. For an Italian researcher, this is a clear indication that there was also some diversity among the inhabitants of cities like Pompeii.

Indications of an infectious disease

In addition to the genetic material, the experts also took a closer look at the bones of the Pompeian man. They noticed she had a problem with one of her vertebrae. They also discovered genome sequences of mycobacteria that are commonly thought to be pathogens that cause tuberculosis or leprosy.

It’s hard to tell today whether the Pompeian man actually suffered from one of the diseases, says Scorrano. Since tuberculosis also affects the intervertebral discs and vertebrae, the deceased may have suffered from it as well.

Better understanding of the social fabric

According to Scorrano, the results of the study are very interesting, for example, to learn more about the society of the time: “A more detailed study of the population can also help to better understand the social structures in Pompeii and the entire Roman Empire.”

In addition to having a more detailed insight into past cultures, the results of the study also show how far technology has progressed in recent years. Therefore, the Italian geneticist hopes to have a lot more information on the genetics of people from different eras in the future.

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