EPSRC National Mass Spectrometry collaboration published

Colleagues from Swansea University Medical School have had a collaboration published in the Guardian newspaper, which describes how a man who died 1,500 years ago may have brought leprosy strain to UK.

Scientists have diagnosed strain of leprosy on man from Scandinavia who died in Essex in the fifth or early sixth century. A Scandinavian man who died 1,500 years ago in Essex suffered from leprosy, and may have been the first to bring the strain to Britain.

The diagnosis and the identification of the strain of leprosy, confirmed by scientists through a battery of tests including extraction of the DNA of the leprosy bacteria, make him the earliest known case in Britain.

The skeleton was excavated more than half a century ago, on the outskirts of the ancient Essex village of Great Chesterford – mentioned in the Domesday Book but with a history stretching back to Roman times and beyond – from an Anglo-Saxon cemetery that was about to be destroyed in the 1950s by gravel works.

The painfully distorted bones of his legs and feet were spotted at the time, but the recent tests on the skeleton, now at the University of Southampton, have identified the strain of leprosy and the man’s probable Scandinavian origins. The same strain has been found in burials in Scandinavia and in much later burials in Britain when leprosy, incurable and disfiguring, became one of the most dreaded diseases of the middle ages. The epidemic peaked between the 12th and 14th centuries, when people with leprosy were forced to live apart from others in society, and were often declared legally dead and all their goods confiscated.

The man was found with the decayed remains of grave goods including a spear, a buckle loop and a knife, and a metal tag from a shoelace, but it was the excellently preserved bones – although most of his face, and his hands, were missing – that interested the scientists. The bones were tested for bacterial DNA and lipid biomarkers, and were also carbon-dated, and the radioactive isotopes in his teeth analysed for indications of where he grew up.

Mike Taylor, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Surrey, said: “Not every excavation yields good quality DNA, but in this case, leprosy DNA isolated from the skeleton was so good it enabled us to identify its strain.”

The fatty molecules from the leprosy bacteria proved to be a 3I lineage, a strain that has also been found in burials in Scandinavia, and in other burials in Britain but from the seventh century onwards, much later date than this man’s fifth- or early sixth-century life and death. The analysis of his bones, and of the isotopes in his teeth, suggest he was in his 20s, and grew up in northern Europe, probably in southern Scandinavia.

Sonia Zakrzewski, from the University of Southampton, said that although some of the bones showed changes typical of the disease, including damage to the joints and narrowing of the toe bones, their success in extracting the leprosy DNA was essential to confirm the diagnosis, as some forms of leprosy leave no traces in the bones, while other diseases can affect the bones, mimicking its effects.

Their results are published in the journal PLOS One. The team intends to carry out further research on skeletons from the period to try to map the spread of the disease. Sarah Inskip, of the University of Leiden, who led the project, said the results were exciting.

“The radiocarbon date confirms this is one of the earliest cases in the UK to have been successfully studied with modern biomolecular methods. This is exciting both for archaeologists and for microbiologists. It helps us understand the spread of disease in the past, and also the evolution of different strains of disease, which might help us fight them in the future.”