Otzi the iceman may hold earliest evidence of lyme disease

Otzi the iceman, which was found in the Eastern Alps about 20 years ago, appears to be the oldest known case of Lyme disease, new genetic analysis of the 5,300-year-old ice mummy has revealed.

As part of work on sequencing the Iceman’s genome fully, Italian scientists found genetic material from the bacterium responsible for lyme disease that causes rashes and flu-like symptoms and can lead to joint, heart and nervous system problems.

The new analysis also indicated the Iceman was lactose intolerant, predisposed to cardiovascular disease, and most likely had brown eyes and blood type O, LiveScience reported.

In spite of the health problems the 45-year-old Iceman was suffering from, he appears to have died a violent death. A flint arrowhead, shot into his left shoulder most likely killed him, the researchers believe.

To sequence the Iceman’s genome, the team took a sample from his hip bone. In it, they looked for not only human DNA — the chemical code that makes up genes — but also for that of other organisms.

While they found evidence of other microbes, the Lyme disease bacterium, called Borrelia burgdorferi, was the only one known to cause disease, said study researcher Albert Zink, head of the European Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Academy of Bozen/Bolzano (EURAC) in Italy.

“Our data point to the earliest documented case of a B. burgdorferi infection in mankind. To our knowledge, no other case report about borreliosis [Lyme disease] is available for ancient or historic specimens,” Zink and colleagues wrote in an article published in the journal Nature Communications.

Discovering evidence of Borrelia is an “intriguing investigative lead,” said Dr Steven Schutzer, an immunologist.

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