April 9, 2010
Photo by Adam Benn
By Adam Benn
The study of ancient DNA is a relatively new area of scholarship, and one graduate student at the University of Saskatchewan has set out to explore the spread of bacteria by examining preserved human remains.
Treena Swanston, a PhD student in archaeology at the University of Saskatchewan, is studying human remains that were discovered in a glacier in northern British Columbia in 1999, on the traditional territory of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. Swanston and other researchers were given permission by the First Nations communities to research the artifacts and remains in order to learn more about their past. Swanston also received assistance from the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, whose equipment and advice played a vital role in her research.
On top her of her current PhD work in archaeology, Swanston holds a B.Sc. in microbiology, which she received in 1992. While working as a research technician in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and taking night classes in archaeology, Swanston was inspired by a professor to unite her two interests. “I became excited that I could combine my previous microbiology knowledge and aspects of molecular research with archaeological studies here at the U of S.
“I chose to look for evidence of two pathogenic bacteria,” she explains, “Helicobacter pylori and Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which currently have world-wide infection rates of 1 in 2 individuals and 1 in 3 individuals respectively. Interestingly, these bacteria have also been studied for their connection with the migration of past human populations.”
Swanston said there are practical applications to her work, apart from the current body of ancient tuberculosis research. “I chose this topic because of my interest in how the study of ancient microbial DNA can be applied to modern health research. Modern northern communities are dealing with higher infection rates of both H. pylori and M. tuberculosis. The knowledge of past bacterial infections will help to define the spread of the bacteria, both spatially and temporally.”
The work is highly interdisciplinary, something Swanston hopes others will become enthusiastic about. “This study leads to a better understanding of the evolution of these bacteria and also indicates the exciting connections that can be made between microbiology and archaeology through the suggestion of culture contact based on the evidence of microbial DNA.”
Part of her research will be included in an upcoming book about the remains and recovery site, published by the Royal British Columbia Museum.
Adam Benn writes profiles for the College of Graduate Studies and Research.