Gallstone from a mummified 16th-century prince used to create the ancient genome of E. coli. to reconstruct

When you think of precious crown jewels, you probably don’t think of a 400-year-old gallstone!

However, a team of scientists has found something very valuable in calcified balls recovered from the gallbladder of a 16th-century Italian prince.

Remains of early E. Coli were found, and researchers at McMaster University in Canada have used them to reconstruct the bacteria’s first ancient genome.

This can act as a “point of comparison” to give us information about how the infamous superbug has evolved over the past 400 years.

The findings, published today in the journal Communications Biology, could enable researchers to eventually pinpoint when E. coli developed antibiotic resistance.

Remains of early E. Coli bacteria were present in the gallstones of a mummified Italian prince

The liver and gallbladder of Giovani d'Avalos.  The gallstones can be seen in the red rectangle, which contain fragments of E. Coli.  Scale bar represents 1 cm

The liver and gallbladder of Giovani d’Avalos. The gallstones can be seen in the red rectangle, which contain fragments of E. Coli. Scale bar represents 1 cm

George Long (pictured) is co-lead author of the study and said:

George Long (pictured) is co-lead author of the study and said: “We were able to identify what an opportunistic pathogen was, dig into the functions of the genome and provide guidelines to help researchers who may be investigating other, hidden pathogens. ‘

The mummified remains of Giovani d’Avalos were recovered in 1983 at the Abbey of Saint Domenico Maggiore in Naples, along with those of other Renaissance Italian nobles.

The Neapolitan nobleman, who died in 1586 at the age of 48, is said to have suffered from chronic inflammation of the gallbladder due to gallstones.

Lead author of the study, George Long, said: “When we examined these remains, there was no evidence to say that this man had E. coli.

‘Unlike an infection like smallpox, there are no physiological indicators. Nobody knew what it was.’

E. coli, or Escherichia colican infect the organs that contribute to the production and transport of bile, including the gallbladder.

It is able to release an enzyme that can convert bilirubin, a chemical produced during the normal breakdown of hemoglobin, into calcium salts – the first step in the formation of pigment stones.

E. Coli not only contributes to the formation of gallstones but can also cause food poisoning, diarrhea, urinary tract infections and pneumonia.

It is known as a ‘commensal’ – a bacterium that resides within us and can act as an opportunistic pathogen infecting its host during periods of stress, underlying disease or immunodeficiency.

E. Coli is also known to be resistant to antibiotics, earning it the title of “superbug.”

E. Coli (pictured) is also known to be resistant to antibiotics, earning it the title of 'superbug'

E. Coli (pictured) is also known to be resistant to antibiotics, earning it the title of ‘superbug’

WHAT IS E. COLI AND WHY IS IT DANGEROUS?

E. coli (Escherichia coli) are bacteria that generally live in the gut of healthy people and animals.

Infections can occur after contact with human or animal feces, or from eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water.

Symptoms of an E.coli infection include bloody diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, and vomiting.

In rare cases, patients can develop a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).

This is a condition in which there is an abnormal destruction of platelets and red blood cells.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the damaged blood cells can clog the kidney’s filtering system, leading to life-threatening kidney failure.

There is currently no treatment to treat these infections. They usually go away within a week, but medical professionals recommend resting and drinking fluids to prevent dehydration and fatigue.

Researchers had to painstakingly isolate fragments of the target bacteria, which had been broken down by environmental contamination from various sources.

They used the recovered material to reconstruct the first ancient E. Coli genome.

However, the research team explained that its entire evolutionary history remains a mystery, including when it gained antibiotic resistance.

Study leader Professor Hendrik Poinar said: ‘A strict focus on pathogens that cause pandemics, as the only story of mass death in our past lacks the great burden that comes from opportunistic commensals driven by the stresses of living life.’

Evolutionary geneticist Prof. Poinar, from Canada’s McMaster University who led the research, said: ‘Modern E. coli is often found in the gut of healthy people and animals.

While most forms are harmless, some strains are responsible for severe, sometimes fatal, outbreaks of food poisoning and bloodstream infections. The hardy and adaptable bacterium is recognized as particularly resistant to treatment.’

He explained that having the genome of a 400-year-old ancestor of the modern bacteria offers researchers a “point of comparison” to study how it has evolved and adapted since then.

He explained that the technological achievement is particularly noteworthy because E. coli is both “complex and ubiquitous” — not just in the soil but in our own microbiome.

Professor Erick Denamur, from Paris Diderot University, said: “It was so exciting to be able to type this ancient E. coli and discover that, while unique, it fell within a phylogenetic lineage characteristic of human commensals and which today is the day still causes gallstones.’

Long added, “We were able to identify what was an opportunistic pathogen, dig into the functions of the genome and provide guidelines to help researchers who may be investigating other, hidden pathogens.”

WHAT IS A GENOM?

An organism’s genome is written in a chemical code called DNA.

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is a complex chemical in almost all organisms that contains genetic information.

It’s in chromosomes, the cell nucleus, and almost every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA.

The human genome is composed of more than three billion pairs of these building block molecules and grouped into some 25,000 genes.

It contains the codes and instructions that tell the body how to grow and develop, but mistakes in the instructions can lead to disease.

Currently, less than 0.2 percent of species on Earth have been sequenced.

The first decoding of a human genome — completed in 2003 as part of the Human Genome Project — took 15 years and cost £2.15 billion ($3 billion).

A group of 24 international scientists aims to collect and store the genetic codes of all 1.5 million known plants, animals and fungi over the next ten years.

The resulting library of life could be used by scientists to learn more about the evolution of species and how we can improve our environment.

The £3.4 billion ($4.7 billion) project has been described as the “most ambitious project in the history of modern biology.”

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