Scientists are continually unearthing new facts about Homo sapiens from the mummified remains of Ötzi, the Copper Age man, who was discovered in a glacier in 1991. Five years ago, after Ötzi's genome was completely deciphered, it seemed that the wellspring of spectacular discoveries about the past would soon dry up. An international team of scientists working with paleopathologist Albert Zink and microbiologist Frank Maixner from the European Academy (EURAC) in Bozen/Bolzano have now succeeded in demonstrating the presence of Helicobacter pylori in Ötzi's stomach contents, a bacterium found in half of all humans today. The theory that humans were already infected with this stomach bacterium at the very beginning of their history could well be true. The scientists succeeded in decoding the complete genome of the bacterium.
When EURAC's Zink and Maixner first placed samples from the Iceman's stomach under the microscope in their ancient DNA Lab at EURAC, almost three years ago, they were initially sceptical.
"Evidence for the presence of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori is found in the stomach tissue of patients today, so we thought it was extremely unlikely that we would find anything because Ötzi's stomach mucosa is no longer there," explains Zink. Together with colleagues from the Universities of Kiel, Vienna and Venda in South Africa as well as the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, the scientists tried to find a new way to proceed. "We were able to solve the problem once we hit upon the idea of extracting the entire DNA of the stomach contents," reports Maixner. "After this was successfully done, we were able to tease out the individual Helicobacter sequences and reconstruct a 5,300 year old Helicobacter pylori genome."
The scientists found a potentially virulent strain of bacteria, to which Ötzi's immune system had already reacted. "We showed the presence of marker proteins which we see today in patients infected with Helicobacter," said the microbiologist.