The Microbiome Snapshot

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Article by: Katherine Lawless

Unlocking secrets of the human microbiome from mummified remains


The human body will always have new scientific mysteries to unlock, whether it is the complexity of genes, to the way the brain and organs function, the complex internal workflows, or the trillions of bacteria that inhabit it.  In the field of microbiome, scientists have studied a variety of sample types including gut, vaginal, oral and skin from living donors. However, what type of mysteries can be unlocked from microbial samples of the deceased?

In this blog, we cover two interesting studies that both collected microbial samples from uniquely preserved mummified remains.

Preserved old bone microbiome

At the end of the 18th century in Italy, a boy died from a putative infection of a bone wound. At the time, his parents felt as though their son was not receiving proper treatment and his condition was not correctly diagnosed. His parents took the unusual step in preserving their child’s infected bone after he died for future analysis. They had a public notary seal the bone fragment in a small envelope. In 2017, Dr. Lucia Sacchetti and their team of experts, tried to identify what caused the boys death by isolating the infected bone by laser microdissection and analyzing the entire bacterial microbiome of the bone sample using next generation sequencing (NGS). [1]

The team determined that the boy likely died of osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone caused by microorganisms. The disease causing bacteria, Pseudomonas aeuroginosa was only discovered in 1882, decades after the boy’s death. 16S rRNA sequencing revealed that P. aeuroginosa represented almost 15% of the total bacteria population of the preserved infected bone. Therefore, suggesting that the boy likely died of osteomyelitis.[1]

“Osteomyelitis has long been known, but the cause remained obscure until the advent of methods able to identify disease causing bacterial species.”

With the modern advancement of microbiology and sequencing technology certain diseases that have existed for hundreds of years, such as Osteomyelitis, can now be studied and treated more accurately and thoroughly. In this day and age, we have the ability to identify causing bacterial species for hundreds of diseases that in the past were considered “incurable.”

Preserved surface and internal organs of a mummy

In modern day Slovakia, in the chapel of the Krasna Horka Castle, lies a naturally mummified body that is believed to belong to Countess Zsofia Andrassy, the wife of Stefan Andrassy I, a famous Hungarian nobleman and General, who died in 1710 and was buried in the crypt of the chapel. It is said that her body was naturally mummified from the limestone water that dripped upon her body and the air flow that gradually dried her body over time. Krakova et al. from the Slovak Academy of Science, were curious as to what actually conserved the mummy and if she died of tuberculosis like so many others in the 18th and 19th centuries. [2]

How was the mummified body conserved?

They studied the microbial communities from 7 different locations on the mummy’s surface: the abdomen, right hand, left ear, left-hand palm and mineral crystals embedded within the skin. They also took samples from the internal organs: the pleura, lung area, and stomach.

On the mummy’s surface they found members of the genera Bacillus, Micrococcus, Alternia, Cladosporium, Penicillium, and the species A. pullulans and E. nigrum, which Krakova et al. surprisingly found contributed to the health of the mummy’s surface. They also found some microorganisms that had bio- degradative abilities. These microorganisms only slowly biodegrade the mummy’s body due to the environmental conditions within the crypt. They predict that the decomposition process might have increased rapidly if the environmental conditions changed such as temperature and if humidity had been kept under control. [2]

Did the countess die of tuberculosis?

They studied the internal organs to determine if Mycobacterium was present, confirming if tuberculosis was the cause of Zsofia’s death. They only found 1% of the genus Mycobacterium in the lung, and a skeletal scan revealed that there was no skeletal deformations associated with tuberculosis concluding that Zsofia likely did not die of tuberculosis. [2]

Interested in learning more about different microbial sample processing and sequencing services for all microbial sample types? Email us at  for more information.

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[1] D’Argenio V et al. The Cause of Death of a Child in the 18th Century solved by Bone Microbiome Typing Using Laser Microdissection and Next Generation Sequencing. Int J Molec Sci. 18:109 (2017).

[2] Krakova L et al. The microbiomes of a XVIII century mummy from the castle of Krasna Horka (Slovakia) and its surrounding environment. Environ Microbiol. 20(9):3294-3308 (2018).

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