The Cause of Death of a Child in the 18th Century Solved by Bone Microbiome Typing Using Laser Microdissection and Next Generation Sequencing

Int J Mol Sci. 2017 Jan 6;18(1):109. doi: 10.3390/ijms18010109.


The history of medicine abounds in cases of mysterious deaths, especially by infectious diseases, which were probably unresolved because of the lack of knowledge and of appropriate technology. The aim of this study was to exploit contemporary technologies to try to identify the cause of death of a young boy who died from a putative "infection" at the end of the 18th century, and for whom an extraordinarily well-preserved minute bone fragment was available. After confirming the nature of the sample, we used laser microdissection to select the most "informative" area to be examined. Tissue genotyping indicated male gender, thereby confirming the notary's report. 16S ribosomal RNA sequencing showed that Proteobacteria and Actinobacteria were more abundant than Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes, and that Pseudomonas was the most abundant bacterial genus in the Pseudomonadaceae family. These data suggest that the patient most likely died from Pseudomonas osteomyelitis. This case is an example of how new technological approaches, like laser microdissection and next-generation sequencing, can resolve ancient cases of uncertain etiopathology. Lastly, medical samples may contain a wealth of information that may not be accessible until more sophisticated technology becomes available. Therefore, one may envisage the possibility of systematically storing medical samples for evaluation by future generations.

Keywords: cold case; human microbiome; metagenomics; next generation sequencing.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Actinobacteria / genetics
  • Actinobacteria / isolation & purification
  • Bacteroidetes / genetics
  • Bacteroidetes / isolation & purification
  • Bone and Bones / microbiology*
  • Cause of Death
  • Child
  • Firmicutes / genetics
  • Firmicutes / isolation & purification
  • Genotype
  • High-Throughput Nucleotide Sequencing*
  • History, 18th Century
  • Humans
  • Laser Capture Microdissection*
  • Male
  • Microbiota*
  • Osteomyelitis / history
  • Osteomyelitis / microbiology
  • Proteobacteria / genetics
  • Proteobacteria / isolation & purification
  • Pseudomonas / genetics
  • Pseudomonas / isolation & purification
  • Pseudomonas Infections / history
  • Pseudomonas Infections / microbiology
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S / genetics


  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S