Paleomicrobiology of Humans

Editors: Michel Drancourt, Didier Raoult
Content Type: Monograph
Format: Electronic
Publication Year: 2016

Category: General Interest; Microbial Genetics and Molecular Biology

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A comprehensive examination of the technical and anthropological issues in this new multidisciplinary field

Only recently was it determined that two of the world’s most devastating plagues, the plague of Justinian and the medieval Black Death, were caused by distinct strains of the same pathogen. Use of paleomicrobiological techniques led to this discovery. This work is just one example of the historical mysteries that this emerging field has helped to clarify. Others, such as when tuberculosis began to afflict humans, the role of lice in plague pandemics, and the history of smallpox, are explored and further illuminated in .

Led by editors Michel Drancourt and Didier Raoult, the book’s expert contributors address larger issues using paleomicrobiology. These include the recognition of human remains associated with epidemic outbreaks, identification of the graves associated with disasters, and the discovery of demographic structures that reveal the presence of an epidemic moment. In addition, this book reviews the technical approaches and controversies associated with recovering and sequencing very old DNA and surveys modern human diseases that have ancient roots.

Essentially, paleomicrobiologists aim to identify past epidemics at the crossroads of different specialties, including anthropology, medicine, molecular biology, and microbiology. Thus, this book is of great interest not only to microbiologists but to medical historians and anthropologists as well.

is the first comprehensive book to examine so many aspects of this new, multidisciplinary, scientific field.

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New Biological Books Review

09 July 2018

This volume edited by Drancourt and Raoult, two of the biggest names in paleomicrobiology, is both educational and informative for researchers in the field. This compendium of articles spans subjects from the demography of epidemics to the more pointed analyses of specific pathogens (e.g., tuberculosis, malaria). In a book format (which always take a long time from conception to printing), most of the articles are already somewhat behind the curve of technological advances. But this does not detract from the usefulness of the information presented. Certainly, we find the biggest names in paleoarcheology and paleomicrobiology, such as the editors themselves, as well as Nerlich, Donoghue, and Aboudharam, among others. It is clear that the intention for this volume was to be an update of what has been done in paleomicrobiology. And, in that mission, it certainly succeeds. From the research articles, we clearly have get a good panorama of how far research on specific pathogens or “-omics” techniques for use on archeological samples has come. For example, the article on ancient resistome (Olaitain and Rolain) is an exciting new look at the potential of uncovering the evolutionary history of antibiotic resistance from historical samples. From the wider subject articles, we have an impressive array of methodologies and new guidelines to handle historical samples (and their data) in the field and in the laboratory. The chapter by Aboudharam is a thoughtful and detailed review of the types of samples with potential use for paleomicrobiology research, and also offers a small but important section on the ethical and legal framework in sample collection. Drancourt’s article should figure prominently in all paleomicrobiology (and indeed field archeology) textbooks, as it offers an excellent and useful synthesis on data authentication and interpretation, which often plagues (pun intended) historical samples.

We also have insightful essays, such as Abi-Rached and Raoult’s Paleogenetics and Past Infections, presenting a roadmap of possibilities for connecting data that is often kept in their own respective field. It also offers a map of our current knowledge of the impact of archaic humans on the genomes of modern populations, showing us one glaring crucial area for which no data is available, and yet is fundamental for our understanding of human evolution: Africa. Although the authors do not go as far as invalidating results from local archeogenome comparisons with their respective modern denizens, they do mention that such gaps in data certainly produce biased results, especially when considering Neanderthal ancestry and hybridism with “modern” humans.

So much in paleomicrobiology has changed so fast since the early work of Svante Pääbo in the 1990s. It is often hard to catch up on the “state-of-the-field” literature, particularly now that publication outlets are numerous and publishing happens at a frantic pace. Although this volume suffers perhaps from a lack of structure (articles jump from specific agents of infection to data handling and back), it certainly achieves its goal of collecting, summarizing, and synthesizing decades of research into a succinct, well-edited, and user-friendly format.

Angélique Corthals, Science, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, New York, New York

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