Page last updated at 18:11 GMT, Wednesday, 16 July 2008 19:11 UK

Ancient bones could yield TB clue

Excavations were carried out between 50 and 70 years ago

Researchers are using human remains from the ancient city of Jericho to study the evolution of tuberculosis.

The work could also help medical researchers combat modern forms of the bacterial disease.

Little is known of TB's evolution, but it is believed to have been prevalent in the early settlements of the Near East many thousands of years ago.

Jericho, located in the present-day West Bank, is one of the oldest cities in the world, dating back 9,000 years.

TB is often regarded as a disease of crowded areas, so scientists believe the conditions in the early cities of the "fertile crescent" region would have been ripe for the spread of infection.

A team led by Professor Mark Spigelman at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is studying a collection of 6,000-year-old bones collected between 50 and 70 years ago.

Many of the bones apparently show signs of tuberculosis, suggesting the disease might have afflicted a significant proportion of the population.

Future evolution

The scientists hope to retrieve both microbial and human DNA from the bones. And they want to compare the data from humans with corresponding animal remains from the ancient site.

If scientists can understand how TB developed in ancient times, it might give them hints to what it will do as it evolves in future.

Burial of a child from Beit Shean (Prof. Mark Spigelman)
Conditions in early settlements would have been ripe for TB
Although the focus will be on TB, the researchers will also test for signs of leprosy, leishmania and malaria.

The disease was well known in antiquity, and it has infected a third of the world's present-day population, resulting in three million deaths each year.

The bones had been held by Sydney University's Nicholson Museum for several decades. Professor Spigelman recognised their significance recently during a visit to the museum.

"They told me they had lots of boxes of bones and didnít know what they were," he explained.

"When I examined them, I recognised that these were the bones from Jericho, and I told them not throw them out!"

The research is a collaboration between the Hebrew University, Al Quds University in Jerusalem and the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany.

Professor Spigelman said the project will also help Palestinian researchers develop the technology to set up their own ancient DNA lab at Al Quds University.

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