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Famous ancient iceman had familiar stomach infection

Ötzi ice mummy yields oldest complete pathogen genome.

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The ice mummy dubbed Ötzi has been studied extensively since he was found in 1991.

Researchers have extracted the oldest complete genome sequence of a pathogen yet, from the body of the 5,300-year-old ice mummy Ötzi.

According to a 7 January paper1 in Science, the ‘Iceman’ was infected with the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, which also plagues modern humans.

Few corpses have drawn more attention from researchers than Ötzi’s, discovered in 1991 encased in ice at an altitude of more than 3,000 metres, by hikers exploring the Tyrolean Alps in Italy. The cause of his death is believed to have been an arrow in the back, but researchers have shown that Ötzi suffered from myriad health problems, including cavities, hardened arteries and possibly Lyme disease.

In 2010, researchers examining a computed tomography (CT) scan of Ötzi noticed that his stomach had been preserved. After they opened him up, they discovered that his last meal had contained ibex and wild grains. Then, a team led by biomolecular archaeologist Albert Zink at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy, decided to look for H. pylori.

Roughly half of all modern humans carry the stomach bacterium, which causes ulcers in a small percentage of carriers and can lead to stomach cancer.

Using purification techniques similar to those used to extract the DNA of bubonic-plague-causing bacteria from the teeth of Black Death victims, Zink’s team obtained genetic material from Ötzi’s stomach that matched 92% of the modern pathogen’s 1.6-million-letter genome.

The strain that infected the iceman contained genes for a cellular toxin that allows modern H. pylori to cause ulcers. Zink’s team also identified protein fragments that are found in the inflamed stomach tissue of people harbouring H. pylori. This suggests that Ötzi may have been made ill by his infection.

The strain found in Ötzi was genetically distinct from the H. pylori most common in modern Europe, which is a recombinant hybrid of two strains related to those that circulate in India and North Africa. Ötzi’s H. pylori matches only the Indian strain.

Humans acquire H. pylori through close contact, usually from family members, and researchers have used the bacterium’s DNA to trace past human migrations. Zink’s team suggests that the migration that brought the North African strain to Europe occurred after Ötzi died. It is also possible that other Europeans who lived at the same time as Ötzi harboured recombinant H. pylori, the authors acknowledge.

Study co-author Yoshan Moodley, a geneticist at the University of Venda in Thohoyandou, South Africa, told journalists that the Ötzi bacterium was probably the original strain that lived in the stomachs of the first Europeans.

“This ancient HP strain has allowed us what is perhaps a unique opportunity to discover what populations of Helicobacter pylori existed in Europe during this copper age,” he told journalists. “This might never happen again that we find such a wonderfully preserved specimen where Helicobacter pylori DNA still can be extracted.”

Daniel Falush, a population geneticist at Swansea University, UK, says that the study solves an important question about when the hybrid H. pylori strain carried by modern Europeans emerged. A previous study2 proposed that it may have arisen in the Middle East as long ago as 50,000 years. It is not yet clear how a North African H. pylori strain got to Europe, Falush says. "Some of the pharaohs in the Nile Valley may have transmitted it," he jokes.

Journal name:


  1. Maixner, F. et al. Science 351, 162165 (2016).

  2. Moodley, Y. et al. PLoS Pathog. 8, e1002693 (2012).

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  1. Avatar for Majid Ali
    Majid Ali
    In 1958, I joined King Edward Medical College, Lahore, Pakistan, and learned that antibiotics often lose their effectiveness after use. I also learned that such antibiotic resistance increases with incremental use of specific antibiotics in a community. In 1968, I received the diploma of the Fellow of Royal College of Surgeons, England. By then, the events surrounding my mother’s death twelve years earlier had receded. She suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis. I regularly listened to her Quran recitations. Her cough often sprayed bloody sputum on my face. I was infected but never became sick. During years of surgical training, nothing was further from my mind than the questions of what might have primacy in a desert, the seed or the soil? Or in the human body, the microbe or the host? Or what might the states of bowel, blood, and liver ecosystems of my mother have had to do with her immunity and death from tuberculosis? Or the states of my ecosystems with my resistance to the bacillus? In 1974, I received my appointment in the Department of Pathology of Columbia University, New York, and Director of Microbiology Laboratory at Holy Name Medical center, Teaneck, New Jersey. During the mid-1980s, I recognized the crucial need for ecologic thinking in medicine and published a monograph entitled Altered States of Bowel Ecology (ref. 1) to focus on the centrality of the bowel in all deliberations of immunity, immune-inflammatory disorders, and infectious processes. In this volume, I described my seed-feed-and-weed guidelines for restoring bowel ecology disrupted by heavy sugar intake, frequent use of antibiotics, neglect of mold and food allergy, and chronic stress. During mid-1980s, I began work in clinical integrative medicine and investigated the efficacy of empirical indigenous therapies for boosting general immunity in order to avoid and/or reduce the use of antibiotics in controlling recurrent and chronic infections. Specifically, I focused on controlling overgrowth of yeast and related fermenting microbes in the gut and stomach. I documented my clinical observation and relevant laboratory data in a series of articles published in Townsend Letter – The Examiner of Alternative Therapies (ref 2 for full citations) and in the 10th, 11th, and 12th volumes of my textbook entitled The Principles and Practice of Integrative Medicine (ref 3-5). The use of antibiotics for non-life-threatening infections can be markedly reduced by integrating time-tested remedies (probiotics, herbs, bowel-restorative spices, and others) with antibiotic therapies based on standard culture/sensitivity microbiology studies. This view is widely shared among integrative clinicians (personal communications in integrative conferences). My main points: The integrative approach to chronic and recurrent infections is needed for addressing the burgeoning problem of antibiotic resistance – reducing the use of antibiotics to diminish microbial resistance . In closing, I point out that 23 yearsafter I published Altered States of Bowel Ecology, the journal Nature fully endorsed that position in a 2010 article with the following words: “By 2020, personalized health care could involve doctors monitoring the metabolic activities of a patient’s gut microbes and, possibly, modulating them therapeutically” (Nature 2010;463:32). Next, consider the following words, again from journal Nature: “World Health Organization warns that world may be heading into a ‘post-antibiotics era’” Nature (2014;516:302). References 1. Ali M. Altered States of Bowel Ecology. (monograph). Teaneck, NJ, 1987. 2. Ali M. Molecular Biology of Oxygen. 3. Ali M. The Principles and Practice of Integrative Medicine Volume X: Darwin, Oxygen Homeostasis, and Oxystatic Therapies. 3 rd. Edi. (2009) New York. Institute of Integrative Medicine Press. 4. Ali M. The Principles and Practice of Integrative Medicine Volume XI: Darwin, Dysox, and Disease. 2000. 3rd. Edi. 2008. New York. (2009) Institute of Integrative Medicine Press. 5. Ali M. The Principles and Practice of Integrative Medicine Volume XII: Darwin, Dysox, and Integrative Protocols. New York (2009). Institute of Integrative Medicine Press.
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