Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex lipid virulence factors preserved in the 17,000-year-old skeleton of an extinct bison, Bison antiquus

PLoS One. 2012;7(7):e41923. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0041923. Epub 2012 Jul 30.


Tracing the evolution of ancient diseases depends on the availability and accessibility of suitable biomarkers in archaeological specimens. DNA is potentially information-rich but it depends on a favourable environment for preservation. In the case of the major mycobacterial pathogens, Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Mycobacterium leprae, robust lipid biomarkers are established as alternatives or complements to DNA analyses. A DNA report, a decade ago, suggested that a 17,000-year-old skeleton of extinct Bison antiquus, from Natural Trap Cave, Wyoming, was the oldest known case of tuberculosis. In the current study, key mycobacterial lipid virulence factor biomarkers were detected in the same two samples from this bison. Fluorescence high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) indicated the presence of mycolic acids of the mycobacterial type, but they were degraded and could not be precisely correlated with tuberculosis. However, pristine profiles of C(29), C(30) and C(32) mycocerosates and C(27) mycolipenates, typical of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex, were recorded by negative ion chemical ionization gas chromatography mass spectrometry of pentafluorobenzyl ester derivatives. These findings were supported by the detection of C(34) and C(36) phthiocerols, which are usually esterified to the mycocerosates. The existence of Pleistocene tuberculosis in the Americas is confirmed and there are many even older animal bones with well-characterised tuberculous lesions similar to those on the analysed sample. In the absence of any evidence of tuberculosis in human skeletons older than 9,000 years BP, the hypothesis that this disease evolved as a zoonosis, before transfer to humans, is given detailed consideration and discussion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Bison
  • Bone and Bones / chemistry
  • Bone and Bones / microbiology
  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid
  • Extinction, Biological
  • Humans
  • Lipids / analysis
  • Lipids / isolation & purification
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / chemistry*
  • Mycolic Acids / analysis*
  • Mycolic Acids / isolation & purification
  • Tuberculosis / microbiology
  • Tuberculosis / veterinary*
  • Virulence Factors / analysis*
  • Virulence Factors / isolation & purification


  • Biomarkers
  • Lipids
  • Mycolic Acids
  • Virulence Factors