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Disease detection in historical samples currently relies on DNA extraction and amplification, or immunoassays. These techniques only establish pathogen presence rather than active disease. We report the first use of shotgun proteomics to detect the protein expression profile of buccal swabs and cloth samples from two 500-year-old Andean mummies. The profile of one of the mummies is consistent with immune system response to severe pulmonary bacterial infection at the time of death. Presence of a probably pathogenic Mycobacterium sp. in one buccal swab was confirmed by DNA amplification, sequencing, and phylogenetic analyses. Our study provides positive evidence of active pathogenic infection in an ancient sample for the first time. The protocol introduced here is less susceptible to contamination than DNA-based or immunoassay-based studies. In scarce forensic samples, shotgun proteomics narrows the range of pathogens to detect using DNA assays, reducing cost. This analytical technique can be broadly applied for detecting infection in ancient samples to answer questions on the historical ecology of specific pathogens, as well as in medico-legal cases when active pathogenic infection is suspected.




- Dr. Liliana Davalos, Stony Brook University

- Dr. Emily Chen and Toni Koeller

- Mario Bernaski and Gabriella Recagno, Museum of High Archaeology, Salta, Argentina


Corthals A, Koller A, Martin DW, Rieger R, Chen EI, et al. (2012) Detecting the Immune System Response of a 500 Year-Old Inca Mummy. PLoS ONE 7(7): e41244. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0041244




This project was a first in the field of proteomics, where our team detected the immune system proteins in two 500 years old frozen bodies