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MD Anderson researcher uncovers some of the ancient mysteries of leprosy
Date:2/20/2014

all the genes in its genome. Those genes went on to become non-functioning pseudogenes or were even lost. This reductive evolution, unique among all pathogenic bacteria known so far, was unearthed from genome sequencing of Mycobacterium leprae several years ago before the discovery of Mycobacterium lepromatosis, by another research team.

A unifying theory

In the newly published study, Han and Silva came to the hypothesis that leprosy has existed for millions of years. This theory was built by connecting the dots from several known facts and published studies.

One piece of evidence is the fact that leprosy is a strict human disease without other hosts or reservoirs. Once outside of the human body, leprosy bacteria are unable to grow in artificial media. One caveat is that Mycobacterium leprae is found in wild armadillos, but only in North America and South America. It's believed the animals likely first acquired the infection from early American explorers a few hundred years ago.

A second piece of evidence suggesting a long history of leprosy lies within the bacterial genome. All worldwide Mycobacterium leprae strains analyzed so far, more than 400 in total, have been found to have essentially identical genomes, or be clonal. This suggests human beings carried the leprosy bacteria when departing Africa around 100,000 years ago to populate the rest of the world. It also means that leprosy bacteria are extraordinarily stable within their human hosts, a sign of mature parasitic life far older than 100,000 years.

A third piece of evidence relates to the last common ancestor of the two known leprosy bacteria, which completed reductive evolution around 10 million years ago, resulting in a lean genome and the loss of free-living ability. A well-adapted lean parasite is confined to its specific host species and is unlikely to switch to other host species.

Lastly, the oldest age of the
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Contact: Jim Newman
jnewman@mdanderson.org
713-792-0664
University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center
Source:Eurekalert

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