Reading the DNA from Pompeii

BBC reports on a study reassembling the genome of a man and woman preserved for centuries under the ash of Pompeii, and what the ancient DNA can teach us today:

The two people were first discovered in 1933, in what Pompeii archaeologists have called Casa del Fabbro, or The Craftsman’s House.

They were slumped in the corner of the dining room, almost as though they were having lunch when the eruption occurred – on 24 August 79AD. One recent study suggested that the huge cloud of ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius could have become lethal for the city’s residents in less than 20 minutes.

The two victims the researchers studied, according to anthropologist Dr Serena Viva from the University of Salento, were not attempting to escape.

“From the position [of their bodies] it seems they were not running away,” Dr Viva told BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science. “The answer to why they weren’t fleeing could lie in their health conditions.”

The genetic study revealed that the man’s skeleton contained DNA from tuberculosis-causing bacteria, suggesting he might have had the disease prior to his death. And a fragment of bone at the base of his skull contained enough intact DNA to work out his entire genetic code.

This showed that he shared “genetic markers” – or recognisable reference points in his genetic code – with other individuals who lived in Italy during the Roman Imperial age. But he also had a group of genes commonly found in those from the island of Sardinia, which suggested there might have been high levels of genetic diversity across the Italian Peninsula at the time.

You can read more of the anthropological genetics research here, in Scientific Reports.