Tracing the History of Syphilis

15syph1901.jpgIs Columbus responsible for bringing Syphilis to Europe?

According to an article that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times (“Genetic Study Bolsters Genetic Link to Syphilis“), a researcher team at Emory University believes they have found “the strongest evidence yet linking the first European explorers of the New World to the origin of sexually transmitted syphilis.”

The study was published in the online journal: Neglected Tropical Diseases (published by the Public Library of Science) this past Monday. In a summary of their methodology and principal findings, the authors write that:

We applied phylogenetics to this problem, using data from 21 genetic regions examined in 26 geographically disparate strains of pathogenic Treponema. Of all the strains examined, the venereal syphilis-causing strains originated most recently and were more closely related to yaws-causing strains from South America than to other non-venereal strains. Old World yaws-causing strains occupied a basal position on the tree, indicating that they arose first in human history, and a simian strain of T. pallidum was found to be indistinguishable from them.

A critique and commentary by Connie J. Mulligan of the University of Florida, Steven J. Norris of the University of Texas at Houston and Sheila A. Lukehart of the University of Washington is scheduled to be published in the journal next week.

About Jennifer Bazar

Jennifer Bazar is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto and Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care. Her research focuses on the history of psychiatric institutionalization.