Genomic blueprint of a relapsing fever pathogen in 15th century Scandinavia

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 Oct 9;115(41):10422-10427. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1807266115. Epub 2018 Sep 24.


Louse-borne relapsing fever (LBRF) is known to have killed millions of people over the course of European history and remains a major cause of mortality in parts of the world. Its pathogen, Borrelia recurrentis, shares a common vector with global killers such as typhus and plague and is known for its involvement in devastating historical epidemics such as the Irish potato famine. Here, we describe a European and historical genome of Brecurrentis, recovered from a 15th century skeleton from Oslo. Our distinct European lineage has a discrete genomic makeup, displaying an ancestral oppA-1 gene and gene loss in antigenic variation sites. Our results illustrate the potential of ancient DNA research to elucidate dynamics of reductive evolution in a specialized human pathogen and to uncover aspects of human health usually invisible to the archaeological record.

Keywords: aDNA; ancient genomics; immune evasion; relapsing fever; vector-borne pathogen.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Bacterial Proteins / genetics*
  • Borrelia / classification
  • Borrelia / genetics*
  • Borrelia / pathogenicity
  • Child
  • Female
  • Genome, Bacterial*
  • History, 15th Century
  • Humans
  • Metagenomics*
  • Phylogeny
  • Relapsing Fever / genetics*
  • Relapsing Fever / history
  • Relapsing Fever / microbiology
  • Scandinavian and Nordic Countries


  • Bacterial Proteins