Italian scientists have managed to sequence the entire genome of an individual who died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 after Christ, which buried the city of Pompeii in present-day Italy under a blanket of ashes. The identified man was lying next to a woman, in the construction called Casa del Artesano.
An unprecedented breakthrough in the field of genetics has made it possible to completely sequence the genome of one of the victims who tragically perished during the vesuvius eruption, which devastated the Italian city of Pompeii nearly 2,000 years ago. In addition to revealing the first genome of a Pompeian, the researchers were also able to determine that the man suffered from spinal tuberculosis, a particularly aggressive variant of that disease.
three buried cities
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius is considered one of the most famous and deadly volcanic eruptions in the history of Europe: different studies and archaeological finds have proven that it took place on October 24, 79 after Christ, although it had previously been dated to August. The catastrophe reached the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiaewhich were tragically buried by multiple layers of volcanic ash.
It was not until the eighteenth century that the first excavations, which began to shed light on the catastrophe. Although it is estimated that between 16,000 and 20,000 people lived in the region at the time, the remains of around 1,500 people have only been found in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Despite these data, the total number of people killed in the tragic event is still a mystery.
Now, a new study led by archaeologist Gabriele Scorrano, from the University of Rome in Italy, has managed to sequence the complete genome of one of the victims of the volcanic eruption, specifically a man of about 40 years of age, whose remains were found in a building called Casa del Artesano. The individual was found together with a woman, who was around 50 years old at the time of death: however, it was only possible to analyze the man’s DNA.
Advance in genetic sequencing
According to an article published in Science Alert, it was historically thought that it was impossible to sequence the genome of the victims of Vesuvius, because the manner of death left the unviable DNA for analysis. It is known that such high temperatures effectively destroy the bone matrix in which the DNA resides: it is worth remembering that the deaths in Pompeii and its area of influence were due to the intense heat of the volcano’s emanations or by suffocation by the gas, the ash and the pumice stone that later fell from the sky, in the form of a merciless lethal rain.
However, the recent advances in genome sequencing have drastically increased the volume of information that can be recovered from this type of DNA fragments, which previously would have been considered too damaged to make their study viable. In the new research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, the Italian specialists were not only able to sequence the man’s complete genome, but also managed to describe the characteristics of the discovered couple.
For example, the man is known to have been about 1.60 meters tall and the woman about 1.53: the sizes are consistent with Roman averages at the time. Apparently, the ash that covered the victims and preserved their fate for almost two millennia could have functioned as a “shield”protecting bodies against environmental factors that accelerate degradation, such as oxygen.
In the remains, the scientists also discovered the presence of DNA from Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. Then they verified that the man suffered from the disease: it is logical since in that historical period there was an increase in this pathology, in the heat of the growth of population density throughout the Roman Empire.
According to the researchers, this finding provides a basis to promote an intensive and extensive paleogenetic analysis, in order to reconstruct the genetic history from the town of Pompeii, a unique archaeological site.
Bioarchaeological and palaeogenomic portrait of two Pompeians that died during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Scorrano, G., Viva, S., Pinotti, T. et al. Scientific Reports (2022). DOI:https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-10899-1