The spread of syphilis across the globe probably was sparked by Christopher Columbus and his crew, who ferried the bacterium, or a version of it, from the New World to the Old World, according to a new genetic analysis published Monday.
A comparison of 23 strains of Treponema pallidum bacteria found that the modern variety that causes the sexually transmitted disease was most closely related to bacteria collected from a remote tribe in Guyana.
Because the tribe has had little contact with the outside world, researchers believe the strain is very close to what was circulating in the Americas at the time of Columbus’ voyage in 1492.
The study, published in the journal Public Library of Science Neglected Tropical Diseases, adds more fuel to the long debate over the origin of syphilis.
“There are loose ends, but … it looks as if it’s very interesting evidence pointing to New World treponematosis being the ancestor of venereal syphilis,” said Della Collins Cook, a physical anthropologist at Indiana University who was not involved in the study.
Other experts argued that the study’s findings are still not strong enough to overturn a theory that venereal syphilis in Europe evolved from local strains.