September 20, 2010

Urbanism and Disease

My original dissertation idea was to look at the way that living in urbanized Rome in the Imperial period affected people's skeletons. Although I eventually narrowed my research focus to migration, which was an important part of urbanization, I did collect pathological data in an attempt to see what the disease load was of the urban Roman population. I haven't yet read the full article, but mainstream media has picked up on the implications of research linking urbanization and resistance to tuberculosis published in an article in Evolution entitled "Ancient urbanisation predicts genetic resistance to tuberculosis." It seems that, although the introduction of cattle farming played a role in humans' developing genetic resistance to TB, those people who lived in long-term, permanent, urbanized settlements had a much higher likelihood of possessing the necessary alleles for resistance to TB (and the related disease leprosy, both of which are caused by Mycobacterium) than did people not from urbanized areas.

This result is pretty cool in that it suggests that the complete lack of evidence of TB and leprosy in the Roman populations I examined may not be unusual. By Imperial times, Rome had been urbanized for centuries, and people had been coming from all over the Empire, bringing in new diseases but also new alleles, so possibly new resistance to endemic diseases. I've said before that I'd love to do some sort of disease ecology study in Rome, particularly with respect to malaria. The study cited above appears to have used DNA analysis of modern people, so I'm wondering if there is a possibility of doing the same kind of study on ancient people (aside from the fact that aDNA analysis is ridiculously expensive).

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

This kind of research is so cool. The interplay of the humanistic, behavioral and cultural side of life and medicine and biology is really fascinating. That is why this field is so interesting. It is sort of the best of both the "hard" sciences and the social sciences, though hard science is not really a term I like to use.

Kristina said...

I agree! And I like to think of this kind of research as "biocultural" rather than hard or soft science, since it's a mixture of a lot of different scientific techniques.

onix said...

interesting but i think malaria in rome would have been very rare, and as a result the research hardly feasible and expensive. i read it somewhere , i think in a historical, or archeological paper, but it is corroborated with the facts in that malaria (re?) arrived in europe only recently due global warming.
could be i am generalising to much but that is what my mind tells me.

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