In Medieval England, Leprosy Spread Between Red Squirrels and People, Genome Evidence Suggests

Evidence from archaeological sites in the medieval English city of Winchester shows that English red squirrels once served as an important host for Mycobacterium leprae strains that caused leprosy in people, researchers reported May 3 in the journal Current Biology. The open-access article is titled “Ancient Mycobacterium leprae Genome Reveals Medieval English Red Squirrels As Animal Leprosy Host.” “With our genetic analysis we were able to identify red squirrels as the first ancient animal host of leprosy,” says senior author Dr. Verena Schuenemann of the University of Basel in Switzerland. “The medieval red squirrel strain we recovered is more closely related to medieval human strains from the same city than to strains isolated from infected modern red squirrels. Overall, our results point to an independent circulation of M. leprae strains between humans and red squirrels during the Medieval Period.” “Our findings highlight the importance of involving archaeological material, in particular animal remains, into studying the long-term zoonotic potential of this disease, as only a direct comparison of ancient human and animal strains allows reconstructions of potential transmission events across time,” says Dr. Sarah Inskip of the University of Leicester, UK, a co-author on the study.
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