The remains of what DNA analysis showed to be a boy found in the Dutch Medieval village Eindhoven, could prove to be revolutionary for both archaeology and modern research on HIV/AIDS:
This chance discovery of ancient DNA has led to one of the most ambitious archaeological projects ever to come out of the Netherlands–a massive excavation in the St. Catherine’s Church cemetery and the establishment of a major ancient human DNA databank. With $3.4 million in funding, Arts and a team of archaeologists and physical anthropologists have now unearthed the skeletons of more than 750 Eindhoven citizens. And over the next two years, University of Leiden geneticist Peter de Knijff will attempt to recover DNA from these remains. “We expect that at least 75 percent of all individuals will have ancient DNA and proteins,” says [Eindhoven Municipal Archaeologist, Nico] Arts.
For researchers, the Eindhoven DNA bank could prove a major windfall, paving the way for a host of new studies. To unravel the mysteries of human disease, researchers are increasingly studying genetic variations in human populations that increase the risk of illnesses, such as diabetes, or boost resistance to infections such as malaria. By studying the variants over time, researchers hope to advance knowledge of these diseases and gather clues to produce vaccines or new drug treatments. And such medical research is where the Eindhoven DNA bank, which spans 600 years of history, could really shine.
The Dutch team hopes, for example, that their project will reveal the origin and prevalence of a genetic variant that increases resistance to one of the world’s most lethal viruses–HIV. Today, nearly 10 percent of people of northern European descent possess this variant, known as the CCR5D32 allele, and the discovery is sparking the development of a new class of AIDS-fighting drugs. Evidence suggests that this mutation first arose 3,100 to 7,800 years ago, but how did it become so prevalent across Europe in an age before the AIDS epidemic? Could this mutation also have boosted resistance to an earlier epidemic, such as smallpox or the Black Death? In search of new data, Knijff and his team will search for this variant in the DNA of Eindhoven’s citizens. “There is no doubt that these studies are valuable,” says Susan Scott, a University of Liverpool historian who has written extensively on the Black Death and its possible connection to the HIV-resistance variant. “Whilst I don’t think [ancient DNA] studies will yield a vaccine for AIDS, they may assist molecular geneticists to develop some gene therapy.” (Archaeology magazine)
Investigations into “why so many residents of Eyam, England, survived the black death when it hit the remote village in 1665”, produced similar evidence for this genetic resistance. All in all, a fascinating blending of archaeology and modern medicine which has the potential of not only providing us more understanding of our ancestors, but possibly could assist in research for diseases like HIV/AIDS today.
For more on the excavation at Eindhoven, click here.
— John (Average Gay Joe)