Research Article: On the Origin of the Treponematoses: A Phylogenetic Approach

Date Published: January 15, 2008

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Kristin N. Harper, Paolo S. Ocampo, Bret M. Steiner, Robert W. George, Michael S. Silverman, Shelly Bolotin, Allan Pillay, Nigel J. Saunders, George J. Armelagos, Albert Ko

Abstract: BackgroundSince the first recorded epidemic of syphilis in 1495, controversy has surrounded the origins of the bacterium Treponema pallidum subsp. pallidum and its relationship to the pathogens responsible for the other treponemal diseases: yaws, endemic syphilis, and pinta. Some researchers have argued that the syphilis-causing bacterium, or its progenitor, was brought from the New World to Europe by Christopher Columbus and his men, while others maintain that the treponematoses, including syphilis, have a much longer history on the European continent.Methodology/Principal FindingsWe applied phylogenetics to this problem, using data from 21 genetic regions examined in 26 geographically disparate strains of pathogenic Treponema. Of all the strains examined, the venereal syphilis-causing strains originated most recently and were more closely related to yaws-causing strains from South America than to other non-venereal strains. Old World yaws-causing strains occupied a basal position on the tree, indicating that they arose first in human history, and a simian strain of T. pallidum was found to be indistinguishable from them.Conclusions/SignificanceOur results lend support to the Columbian theory of syphilis’s origin while suggesting that the non-sexually transmitted subspecies arose earlier in the Old World. This study represents the first attempt to address the problem of the origin of syphilis using molecular genetics, as well as the first source of information regarding the genetic make-up of non-venereal strains from the Western hemisphere.

Partial Text: As Naples fell before the invading army of Charles the VIII in 1495, a plague broke out among the French leader’s troops [1]. When the army disbanded shortly after the campaign, the troops, composed largely of mercenaries, returned to their homes and disseminated the disease across Europe [2],[3]. Today, it is generally agreed that this outbreak was the first recorded epidemic of syphilis. Although its death toll remains controversial, there is no question that the infection devastated the continent [4]. Because the epidemic followed quickly upon the return of Columbus and his men from the New World, some speculated that the disease originated in the Americas [2]. Indeed, reports surfaced that indigenous peoples of the New World suffered from a similar malady of great antiquity [5] and that symptoms of this disease had been observed in members of Columbus’s crew [3]. In the twentieth century, criticisms of the Columbian hypothesis arose, with some hypothesizing that Europeans had simply not distinguished between syphilis and other diseases such as leprosy prior to 1495 [6].

In the past, a number of different hypotheses regarding the origin of T. pallidum subsp. pallidum, the causative agent of syphilis, have been put forth. Using new data collected in this study, we assess a number of these hypotheses.



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