Ancient Italian Churchyard Studied For Cholera DNA

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A South Sudanese woman holds her baby suffering from cholera in Juba Teaching Hospital in Juba, May 27, 2014. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 86 new cases of cholera were admitted in Juba Teaching hospital, with over 500 cases of cholera treated since the outbreak was declared by the Ministry of Health on May 15. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu

Cholera is a deadly disease. In the 1850s, a cholera epidemic swept the world. At the Badia Pozzeveri church cemetery near Lucca, Italy, archaeologists have exhumed skeletons of people who died in the cholera epidemic of the 1850s in Tuscany, where the epidemic wiped out 27,000 people.

These are the best preserved remains of cholera victims of this period, according to archaeologist Clark Spencer Larsen of Ohio State University who has been studying the skeletons for four years. The researchers are looking for the DNA of the cholera bacteria.

The bodies were treated with lime at their burial. The lime was believed to prevent the spread of the disease. It helped to preserve the bones and potentially the DNA of the cholera as well. Soil samples around the bones may hold the DNA of V. cholera, Larsen said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, California.

The researchers will be able to compare the DNA of the cholera bacteria from that period to the cholera bacteria found today. That’s the first step to possibly finding a cure. The scientists will be able to see how the bacteria has evolved over the years. Cholera kills by invading the small intestine, causing severe diarrhea and dehydration so that victims could die within a few hours after the symptoms begin.

According to the World Health Organization, there were more than 100,000 cases in 2013. In 2011, there were nearly 600,000 cholera cases worldwide. Before the Badia Pozzeveri churchyard, the site was home to a monastery between 1056 and 1048. Then it became a church that was closed only about 50 years ago. The site has served as a graveyard for locals for 1,000 years. The dead from the black death plague of the 1300s also rest there.

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