New ASU Research Links Seals To Origins Of Human Tuberculosis

August 21, 2014

(iStockphoto via NPR.org)
The ancient people of Peru have a spiritual connection to sea lions (shown here at Peru's Paracas national park). They may have had a bacterial connection as well.
(Photo courtesy of Jane Buikstra and Sonia Guillen, Centro Mallqui, Ilo, Peru)
Vertebrae that have collapsed and fused together, forming a curve. This is a telltale sign of TB.

A new report suggests that tuberculosis was brought to the Americas by seals, and researchers at Arizona State University had a hand in the findings. 

Tuberculosis, or TB, claims the lives of more than a million people worldwide annually. The invasive bacteria scars the lungs and sometimes attacks the skeleton.

Researchers from ASU and international labs have been analyzing thousand-year-old Peruvian mummies with skeletal damage from TB. They found genetic structures of TB that predates the arrival of Europeans, which was thought to be the origin of TB in the Americas.

When compared to TB that affects seals today, the genetics are more similar, suggesting that seals, not humans, were originally responsible for the type of TB in the Americas and is much younger than originally thought. 

Dr. Kelly Harkins, one of the lead authors, describes ASU’s role and why these findings happened only recently.

“It was ASU who had had this longstanding and previously funded project on ancient tuberculosis," Harkins said. "But the technology to do what we did in this paper has only been possible for the last few years. It’s kind of incredible.”

Other ASU researchers say better understanding the origin of a disease better informs them when predicting how it will evolve today and how it is transmitted between hosts. This research upends initial understandings to the origin of one of today’s most deadly diseases.