Researchers sequence entire genome of Vesuvius victim

Analysis of the Pompeian individual's skeletal remains revealed they likely suffered from spinal tuberculosis.

For the first time, researchers have successfully sequenced the genome of an individual that died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, demonstrating the potential of DNA analyses in shedding light on the genetic and pathological profiles of the city’s population.

Two individuals, one male and the other female, were found in the Casa del Fabbro in Pompeii, and have now undergone bioarchaeological analyses as part of a new study by the University of Rome. IMAGE: Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità, 1934, p. 286, fig. 10.

Genetic studies of Vesuvius’ victims have previously been limited to the sequencing of short stretches of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) as, in many cases, the extreme temperature of the volcanic ash cloud released during the eruption affected the structure of the skeletal remains and the quality of retrievable ancient DNA (aDNA).

As discussed in a paper recently published in Scientific Reports, a study led by researchers Gabriele Scorrano and Serena Viva of the Universities of Rome and Salento involved the examination of the remains of two individuals recovered from the Casa del Fabbro, translated as the House of the Craftsman, in Pompeii.

Both individuals were found leaning on the remnants of a triclinium (chaise longue) – their anatomical positions suggesting their deaths had been instantaneous.

Osteological analysis identified one of the individuals as a 35- to 40-year-old male, measuring 164.3cm tall, and the other as a female who died aged at least 50 years old and stood at 153.1cm tall.

The team were able to extract aDNA from the teeth and petrous bones of both individuals. Based on the condition of the aDNA, however, they were only able to sequence the entire genome of the male skeleton.

The research team were able to extract aDNA from the individuals’ teeth and petrous bones.

The male individual’s DNA was then compared with that obtained from 1030 other ancient and 471 modern western Eurasians. This revealed that they shared the most genetic similarities with central Italian populations from the Roman Imperial Age.

Analyses also revealed that the individual’s mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA corresponds to lineages prevalent among those from the island of Sardinia, and absent among published Ancient Roman individuals from the Italian Peninsula. These findings, as the paper suggests, testify to a degree of diversity in the region at that time.

Additionally, lesions identified in the male individual’s fourth lumbar vertebra, and DNA sequences of the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis detected in subsequent analysis, indicate the individual may have been afflicted by spinal tuberculosis.

A palaeopathological study carried out on the male Pompeian individual has led to a diagnosis of spinal tuberculosis on the basis of diagnostic morphological markers. This includes evidence of erosion in the vertebral body and lytic destruction of the fourth lumbar vertebra. IMAGE: © Scorrano et al., 2022.

Ultimately, these findings present the possibility of extracting DNA from other victims of Vesuvius to gain insight into the genetic histories of Pompeii’s population.