Ancient Viking poop helped scientists map the genetics of a 5000-year-old parasite

Preventing serious negative effects

The research team then examined the ancient stool samples gathered from various locations and compared them with contemporary samples received from people with whipworms from around the world. This provided them an insight into the evolution of the worm over ten-thousands of years.

“Unsurprisingly, we can see that the whipworm appears to have spread from Africa to the rest of the world along with humans about 55,000 years ago, following the so-called ‘out of Africa’ hypothesis on human migration,” stated Kapel.

As mentioned above, a whipworm infection can have a beneficial impact on a healthy host. When it comes to severe infections, on the other hand, it can lead to dysentery, anemia, and rectal prolapse, and in children, it can impede healthy growth.

The researchers believe that this new research could help develop new ways to prevent such effects.

The findings have been published in the journal Nature Communications.


The neglected tropical disease trichuriasis is caused by the whipworm Trichuris trichiura, a soil-transmitted helminth that has infected humans for millennia. Today, T. trichiura infects as many as 500 million people, predominantly in communities with poor sanitary infrastructure enabling sustained faecal-oral transmission. Using whole-genome sequencing of geographically distributed worms collected from human and other primate hosts, together with ancient samples preserved in archaeologically-defined latrines and deposits dated up to one thousand years old, we present the first population genomics study of T. trichiura. We describe the continent-scale genetic structure between whipworms infecting humans and baboons relative to those infecting other primates. Admixture and population demographic analyses support a stepwise distribution of genetic variation that is highest in Uganda, consistent with an African origin and subsequent translocation with human migration. Finally, genome-wide analyses between human samples and between human and non-human primate samples reveal local regions of genetic differentiation between geographically distinct populations. These data provide insight into zoonotic reservoirs of human-infective T. trichiura and will support future efforts toward the implementation of genomic epidemiology of this globally important helminth.

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