The Origin of Syphilis

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchSyphilis is first clearly seen in Europe in 1495, when it appeared as a plague (though it was not “the blague” … Yersinia pestis) among Charles VIII’s troops. When these troops went home shortly after the fall of Naples, they brought this disease with them, staring an epidemic. The level of mortality in Europe was truly devastating. Is it the case that syphilis was brought to Europe by Columbus and his men just prior to the plague-like outbreak of 1495?

The origin of syphilis has been debated for years, really since the actual 1495 event itself. Some researchers have asserted that syphilis is present in the writings of Hippocrates, placing it squarely in the old world thousands of years prior to Columbus. Others, as suggested above, have argued that Columbus brought syphilis over to the Old World . A third (Crosby’s “combination theory”) asserts, essentially, that syphilis is both an Old World and New World disease, and that the history of the disease is complicated by the innately complex relationship between any pathogen and human populations with variable immunities, both of which tend to evolve.

A new paper is being published as we speak in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, by Harper et al , called “On the Origin of the Treponematoses: A Phylogenetic Approach.” Studiously ignoring Crosby’s discussion (and I’m sure there is some unseemly story of academic infighting to explain that), the paper examines the Old World vs. New World origins hypotheses.

Here is the author’s summary from the paper:

For 500 years, controversy has raged around the origin of T. pallidum subsp. pallidum, the bacterium responsible for syphilis. Did Christopher Columbus and his men introduce this pathogen into Renaissance Europe, after contracting it during their voyage to the New World? Or does syphilis have a much older history in the Old World? This paper represents the first attempt to use a phylogenetic approach to solve this question. In addition, it clarifies the evolutionary relationships between the pathogen that causes syphilis and the other T. pallidum subspecies, which cause the neglected tropical diseases yaws and endemic syphilis. Using a collection of pathogenic Treponema strains that is unprecedented in size, we show that yaws appears to be an ancient infection in humans while venereal syphilis arose relatively recently in human history. In addition, the closest relatives of syphilis-causing strains identified in this study were found in South America, providing support for the Columbian theory of syphilis’s origin.

The authors looked at 21 strains of the bacterium Treponematoses pallidum and conducted a detailed genetic (phylogenetic) study of these genomes to come to the conclusion that syphilis originates in the new world. However, a commentary on the paper, published along side it in PLoS, brings the conclusion into question. The commentary by Lukehart and Norris notes that the genetic data from the New World (which the main paper’s authors assert points to a New World origin) is weak. In addition, there are problems, partly outlined in the commentary and partly fairly obvious to anyone who reads the paper, that the issue of evolutionary change in both the pathogens and the humans who harbor them has not been sufficiently taken into account.

In my view, a detailed phylogenetic study such as the one presented here is fundamentally important, but is very unlikely on its own to definitively answer the question of origin and evolution of syphilis.

Need more research…



Lukehart S, Mulligan C, Norris S (2008) Molecular Studies in Treponema pallidum Evolution: Toward Clarity? PLoS Negl Trop Dis 2(1).

Harper KN, Ocampo PS, Steiner BM, George RW, Silverman MS, et al. (2008) On the Origin of the Treponematoses: A Phylogenetic Approach. PLoS Negl Trop Dis 2(1): e148. doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0000148

Comments

  1. #1 Jim Thomerson
    January 14, 2008

    One story is that syphillis transferred from llamas to humans in the new world. If so, does that make it the only animal-origin human disease to originate in the New World? A side story: a colleague traveling in the coastal desert of Venezuela encountered a government team who were shooting wild donkeys. The young lady in charge of the team told him they were being destroyed because they were a reservoir for syphillis.

  2. #2 chezjake
    January 14, 2008

    So, if yaws is the older disease (Wikipedia says it’s been around for 1.5 million years, and clearly it could leave skeletal evidence.), where did it originate? Has it been universal in the tropics since ancient times, or did it too originate in the new world? Seems to me that this could provide significant evidence on the origins of syphilis.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    January 15, 2008

    Jim: There are plenty of New World zoonotic diseases. Among the more icky ones are Bolivian Hemorrhagic Fever, Guanarito virus, Argentine hemorrhagic fever, possibly some versions of the Hanta virus, and possibly Yellow Fever. Most of these have rodent reservoirs.

  4. #4 the real cmf
    January 15, 2008

    sure, this all sounds nice and sciebntific, but we all know that true origins were with that coke dealer who always sits at the end of the bar, and wears ‘cool’ hats so nobody knows he is going bald….that other theory, the one about the ‘town pump’ is soooooo debunked by now.

  5. #5 Ian
    January 16, 2008

    And here we thought it was spread by The Girl From Treponema:
    Tall and tan and young and lovely
    The girl from Treponema goes loving
    And when she loves, each one she loves goes “Ouch!”….

  6. #6 swapnakaj
    April 21, 2009

    A good and informative blog, describing everything about the origin of syphilis.

  7. #7 chamberino sam
    September 7, 2010

    There once was a Conquistador named Bruno,
    Who said of sex I do know,
    A woman is fine,
    A boy os divine,
    But a llama is numero uno.