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Professor Angelique Corthals Uses Novel Techniques to Detect Lung Infection in 500 Year-Old Mummy

Cutting-Edge Science Helps Incan Mummy Say What Hurts

New York, NY, July 25, 2012 – An article in open source journal PLoS ONE, titled "Detecting the Immune System Response of a 500 Year-old Inca Mummy", reports the first-ever use of proteomics to detect immune system response from a frozen Inca mummy. Assistant Professor Angelique Corthals of the Department of Sciences at John Jay College of Criminal Justice is the lead author on the study which found that the Incan mummy suffered from a bacterial lung infection at the time of its death.

"Pathogen detection in ancient tissues isn't new, but until now it's been impossible to say whether the infectious agent was latent or active. We're hopeful that our analytical techniques will initiate future applications in archaeology, forensic anthropology, pathology and criminology," said Corthals. "Our study opens a new door to solving some of history's biggest mysteries, such as the reasons why the flu of 1918 was so devastating. It will also enhance our understanding of our future's greatest threats, such as the emergence of new infectious agents or re-emergence of known infectious diseases."

Detecting diseases in ancient remains is fraught with difficulty. Techniques based on amplification of DNA from microbes can easily get contaminated from the environment, and can only confirm the presence of a pathogen and not that the person was ill with an infectious disease. Professor Corthals, a forensic anthropologist, found a way around this problem. Corthals, along with colleagues from the Center for Proteomics at Stony Brook University led by Dr. Toni Köller, used proteomics, a method that decodes proteins rather than DNA, to profile immune system response from degraded samples taken from 500 year-old mummies.

When a pathogen strikes, the body defends itself and in doing so produces a distinctive profile of proteins. A lab technique called immunoassay takes advantage of these changes to bind immune proteins called antigens. To conduct antigen-binding immunoassays, however, one needs to know in advance what to look for, and binding is not as specific with ancient samples as with fresh tissues. Professor Corthals decided to sample protein profiles directly from archaeological specimens.

The team swabbed the lips of two Andean Inca mummies, found buried at 22,000-feet elevation in 1999, and preserved since 2003 at the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology in Salta, Argentina. After processing the swab samples to separate both DNA and proteins, they compared the proteins they found to large databases of the human genome. The protein profile from the mummy of a 15-year old girl, called "The Maiden", was similar to that of chronic respiratory infection patients. Analysis of the DNA showed the presence of probably pathogenic bacteria in the genus Mycobacterium, responsible for upper respiratory tract infections and tuberculosis. In addition, X-rays of the lungs of the Maiden showed signs of lung infection at the time of death.

Proteomics, DNA, and x-rays from another mummy found together with the Maiden did not show signs of respiratory infection.

To review the article, click here

Citation: Corthals A, Koller A, Martin DW, Rieger R, Chen EI, et al. (2012) Detecting the Immune System Response of a 500 Year-Old Inca Mummy. PLoS ONE 7(7): e41244. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0041244

This work was supported in part by National Geographic Society and the Secretariat of Culture of the Province of Salta, Argentina; and by grant NIH/NCRR 1S10RR025072-1 (Orbitrap). No additional external funding was received for this study. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

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