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Ancient bacterial genomes reveal a formerly unknown diversity of Treponema pallidum strains in early modern Europe

By Kerttu Majander, Saskia Pfrengle, Judith Neukamm, Arthur Kocher, Louis du Plessis, Marta Pla-Díaz, Natasha Arora, Gülfirde Akgül, Kati Salo, Rachel Schats, Sarah Inskip, Markku Oinonen, Heiki Valk, Martin Malve, Aivar Kriiska, Päivi Onkamo, Fernando Gonzalez Candelas, Denise Kuhnert, Johannes Krause, Verena J. Schuenemann

Posted 10 Jun 2020
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.06.09.142547

Sexually transmitted (venereal) syphilis marked European history with a devastating epidemic at the end of the 15th century, and is currently re-emerging globally. Together with non-venereal treponemal diseases, like bejel and yaws, found in subtropical and tropical regions, it poses a prevailing health threat worldwide. The origins and spread of treponemal diseases remain unresolved, including syphilis' potential introduction into Europe from the Americas. Here, we present the first genetic data from archaeological human remains reflecting a previously unknown diversity of Treponema pallidum in historical Europe. Our study demonstrates that a variety of strains related to both venereal syphilis and yaws were already present in Northern Europe in the early modern period. We also discovered a previously unknown T. pallidum lineage recovered as a sister group to yaws and bejel. These findings imply a more complex pattern of geographical prevalence and etiology of early treponemal epidemics than previously understood. ### Competing Interest Statement The authors have declared no competing interest.

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