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Mummies found in Hungarian crypt reveal the Roman lineage of tuberculosis

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Samples from mummies in a Hungarian crypt have revealed that multiple tuberculosis strains derived from a single Roman ancestor that circulated in 18th-century Europe, scientists said Tuesday.

Their findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, drew on a remarkable, if gruesome, source.

In 1994, workers restoring a Dominican church in Vac, Hungary, stumbled upon the remains of more than 200 people whose corpses had become naturally mummified.

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The individuals, many of them wealthy Catholics, had been placed fully clothed in coffins in the church crypt just north of the capital Budapest between 1731 and 1838.

A microclimate of exceptionally dry air prevented the bodies and garments from rotting.

In many cases, the individuals’ names and details about their death were available from records — making it a treasure trove for epidemiologists with valuable clues about how diseases spread in earlier times.

The researchers extracted samples from 26 of the Vac bodies with markers for TB infection. Eight yielded a sample good enough to enable genetic sequencing of Mycobacterium tuberculosis germs.

What emerged is a tableau of a disease that fully lives up to its reputation in folklore.

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TB was raging in 18th-century Europe, even before urbanisation and crowded housing made it a killer on a much greater scale, the investigators found.

M. tuberculosis was first described in 1882 by the German microbiologist Robert Koch.

TB, or consumption as it was then called, killed one person in seven, Koch wrote.

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“Microbiological analysis of samples from contemporary TB patients usually report a single strain of tuberculosis per patient,” said Mark Pallen of the University of Warwick medical school in central England, who led the new probe.

“By contrast, five of the eight bodies in our study yielded more than one type of tuberculosis — remarkably, from one individual, we obtained evidence of three distinct strains.”

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All the samples carried a genetic signature of a notorious tuberculosis strain called Lineage 4, which today accounts for more than a million TB cases every year in Europe and the Americas.

By building a family tree of the germ, the team dated the bacterial ancestor to the late Roman period.

“(It) confirmed the genotypic continuity of an infection that has ravaged the heart of Europe since prehistoric times,” said Pallen.

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The Roman dating supports recent scientific estimates that tuberculosis first emerged about 6,000 years ago.

Other experts had suggested that it spread to humans tens of thousands of years ago.

– Eerie find –

Walled up and forgotten for about 150 years, the coffins were discovered when a construction worker tapped on a wall during renovation work 21 years ago. When he found the wall was hollow he removed a brick to investigate.

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Part of the wall gave way to reveal coffins, many decorated with skulls, stacked from floor to ceiling.

They were found to contain 265 mummified former denizens of Vac, from priests to ordinary townsfolk.

Mummification may have been aided by wood chips placed in the bottom of the coffins, which absorbed bodily fluids, and natural anti-microbial agents in the pine resin in the coffins.

The mummies are housed at the Hungarian Natural History Museum, which took part in the study.

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Previous research, based on marks on the mummies’ bones left by TB infection, found that incidence of the disease in Vac surged from about 1760.


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‘People’s lives will be lost’: Psychiatrist warns ‘sociopath’ Trump is ‘getting worse’ — and failing in coronavirus response

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President Donald Trump's psychological problems are getting worse and could be consequential as America faces a potential COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell on Thursday interviewed Dr. Lance Dodes, a former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

"As you pointed out, Lawrence, this man is about himself. He really is not about the country, he's not about public health," Dr. Dodes said of Trump.

"Although he has already severely damaged the country by being a psychopath or sociopath -- in many ways, he's damaged democracy -- I think people's lives will be lost now," he warned. "Individual lives will be lost because of the way he's mishandling the coronavirus issue."

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2020 Election

‘Something really rotten’: Here’s the evidence of extensive voter suppression in Georgia’s notorious 2018 election

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As the 2020 presidential campaign cycle grinds on, there’s renewed concern about the 21st century’s newest form of warfare: cyber-sabotage of government systems, including elections and online disinformation intended to incite unrest. But as Suppressed: The Fight to Vote, a documentary from Brave New Films, makes clear, partisan voter suppression tactics with 20th-century roots remain and can thwart multitudes of voters from changing their state’s political leaders.

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The real story behind Trump’s new lawsuit against the New York Times

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Wednesday was an ominous day for freedom of the press in this country, and I want to tell you why.

You may have heard or seen that President Trump filed a libel suit against the New York Times. Perhaps you weren’t surprised: the president is known to frequently disparage the Times even as he reads it obsessively. Borrowing a page from what I’ve referred to before as a Mount Rushmore of totalitarians, Robespierre, Hitler, Stalin and Mao, Trump loves to call the press the “enemy of the people.”

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