Goodbye Columbus, hello syphilis. When Renaissance-era folk bade farewell to Christopher Columbus and his crew, little did they know that the New World explorers would return with syphilis infections that eventually triggered devastating outbreaks of the sexually transmitted disease in Europe.
That's the implication of the first study to probe the genetic makeup and evolutionary relationships of strains of bacteria, known as treponemes, that cause syphilis and related diseases.
"Our data support the hypothesis that syphilis, or some progenitor of it, came from the New World," says geneticist Kristen N. Harper of Emory University in Atlanta, who directed the new investigation.
The first recorded syphilis epidemic in Europe occurred in 1495. Scientists have argued for decades about whether syphilis originated in the Americas and spread elsewhere via European explorers or arose much earlier in Europe.