Genome-wide comparison of medieval and modern Mycobacterium leprae

Science. 2013 Jul 12;341(6142):179-83. doi: 10.1126/science.1238286. Epub 2013 Jun 13.


Leprosy was endemic in Europe until the Middle Ages. Using DNA array capture, we have obtained genome sequences of Mycobacterium leprae from skeletons of five medieval leprosy cases from the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Denmark. In one case, the DNA was so well preserved that full de novo assembly of the ancient bacterial genome could be achieved through shotgun sequencing alone. The ancient M. leprae sequences were compared with those of 11 modern strains, representing diverse genotypes and geographic origins. The comparisons revealed remarkable genomic conservation during the past 1000 years, a European origin for leprosy in the Americas, and the presence of an M. leprae genotype in medieval Europe now commonly associated with the Middle East. The exceptional preservation of M. leprae biomarkers, both DNA and mycolic acids, in ancient skeletons has major implications for palaeomicrobiology and human pathogen evolution.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bone and Bones / microbiology
  • DNA, Bacterial / chemistry
  • DNA, Bacterial / genetics
  • DNA, Bacterial / isolation & purification
  • Denmark
  • Endemic Diseases / history
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Genome, Bacterial / genetics*
  • History, Medieval
  • Humans
  • Leprosy / epidemiology
  • Leprosy / history
  • Leprosy / microbiology*
  • Mycobacterium leprae / classification*
  • Mycobacterium leprae / genetics*
  • Mycobacterium leprae / isolation & purification
  • Mycolic Acids / chemistry
  • Phylogeny
  • Sweden
  • Tooth / microbiology
  • United Kingdom


  • DNA, Bacterial
  • Mycolic Acids