Ancient Viking Poo Helped Scientists Map Genetics of 5,000-Year-Old Parasite

Prevent serious negative effects

The research team then looked at ancient stool samples collected from various locations and compared them with contemporary samples received from people with whipworm around the world. This gave them insight into the evolution of the worm over ten thousand years.

“Unsurprisingly, we can see that the whipworm appears to have spread from Africa to the rest of the world with humans around 55,000 years ago, following the so-called ‘out of Africa’ human migration hypothesis. “, Kapel said.

As mentioned above, a whipworm infection can have a beneficial impact on a healthy host. In contrast, when it comes to serious infections, it can lead to dysentery, anemia and rectal prolapse, and in children it can hamper healthy growth.

The researchers believe this new research could help develop new ways to prevent such effects.

The results were published in the journal Nature Communication.


Trichuriasis, a neglected tropical disease, is caused by the whipworm Trichuris trichiura, a soil-transmitted helminth that has infected humans for millennia. Today, T. trichiura infects up to 500 million people, mostly in communities with poor sanitation infrastructure allowing sustained faecal-oral transmission. Using whole genome sequencing of geographically distributed worms collected from human and other primate hosts, as well as ancient samples housed in latrines and archaeologically defined deposits dating back less than a thousand years, we present the first genomic study of the population of T. trichiura. We describe the continent-wide genetic structure between whipworms infecting humans and baboons versus those infecting other primates. Demographic analyzes of admixtures and populations support a stepwise distribution of genetic variation that is highest in Uganda, consistent with an African origin and later translocation with human migration. Finally, genome-wide analyzes between human samples and between human and non-human primate samples reveal local regions of genetic differentiation between geographically distinct populations. These data provide insight into the zoonotic reservoirs of human infectious T. trichiura and will support future efforts towards implementing the genomic epidemiology of this globally important helminth.

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