The genome of a victim of the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius on the ancient city of Pompeii has been sequenced for the first time, scientists have revealed, shedding new light on the health and diversity of those who lived in the Roman Empire at the time of the disaster.
In a study published Thursday in Scientific Reports, a team led by Gabriele Scorrano, assistant professor of geogenetics at the University of Copenhagen, extracted the DNA of two victims, a man and a woman, whose remains were found in the Craftsman’s house. in Pompeii, a domus which was first excavated in 1914.
Although experts sequenced the DNA of both victims, they were only able to sequence the entire genome of the man’s remains due to gaps in the sequences obtained from the woman.
Prior to this study, only short stretches of mitochondrial DNA from human and animal remains found at Pompeii had been sequenced.
The man was between 35 and 40 years old when he was killed during the violent eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Comparisons of his DNA with genetic codes obtained from 1,030 ancient humans, as well as 471 modern West Eurasian individuals, suggested that his DNA shared the most similarities with modern individuals from central Italy and those who lived during the ancient Roman period. Analysis of his mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome also identified gene clusters commonly found in Sardinia, but not among those who lived in Italy during the empire, suggesting that there may be high levels of genetic diversity in the Italian peninsula at that time.
Further analysis of the man’s skeleton also identified lesions in one of the vertebrae and DNA sequences suggested he may have had tuberculosis before his death.
The woman was over 50 and reportedly suffered from osteoarthritis.
“That could have been why they waited for it all to end, perhaps in the safety of their homes, compared to other fleeing victims whose remains were found in open spaces,” he said. said Serena Viva, an anthropologist at the University of Salento who was part of the study team.
Scientists have speculated that it would have been possible to successfully recover ancient DNA from human remains, as the pyroclastic materials released during the eruption could have provided protection against environmental factors that degrade the DNA, such as atmospheric oxygen.
The ruins of Pompeii were discovered in the 16th century, with the first excavations beginning in 1748. About 1,500 of an estimated 2,000 victims have been found over the centuries. Excavations in 2020 of a villa in what would have been the outskirts of the ancient city revealed the remains of two men, believed to be a master and his slave.
Scientists said the findings support the possibility of recovering ancient DNA from other Pompeii victims to better understand their genetic history.
“In the future, many more genomes from Pompeii can be studied,” Viva said. “The victims of Pompeii experienced a natural disaster, a thermal shock, and we did not know that we could preserve their genetic material. This study provides that confirmation, and that new genetic analysis technology allows us to sequence genomes also on damaged material.