A molecular portrait of maternal sepsis from Byzantine Troy

Authors: Alison M Devault, Tatum D Mortimer, Andrew Kitchen, Henrike Kiesewetter, Jacob M Enk, G Brian Golding, John Southon, Melanie Kuch, Ana T Duggan, William Aylward, Shea N Gardner, Jonathan E Allen, Andrew M King, Gerard Wright, Makoto Kuroda, Kengo Kato, Derek EG Briggs, Gino Fornaciari, Edward C Holmes, Hendrik N Poinar, Caitlin S Pepperell.

eLife 2017;6:e20983; doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.20983

Abstract

Pregnancy complications are poorly represented in the archeological record, despite their importance in contemporary and ancient societies. While excavating a Byzantine cemetery in Troy, we discovered calcified abscesses among a woman’s remains. Scanning electron microscopy of the tissue revealed ‘ghost cells’, resulting from dystrophic calcification, which preserved ancient maternal, fetal and bacterial DNA of a severe infection, likely chorioamnionitis. Gardnerella vaginalis and Staphylococcus saprophyticus dominated the abscesses. Phylogenomic analyses of ancient, historical, and contemporary data showed that G. vaginalis Troy fell within contemporary genetic diversity, whereas S. saprophyticus Troy belongs to a lineage that does not appear to be commonly associated with human disease today. We speculate that the ecology of S. saprophyticus infection may have differed in the ancient world as a result of close contacts between humans and domesticated animals. These results highlight the complex and dynamic interactions with our microbial milieu that underlie severe maternal infections.

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