A new technology can analyse millions of gene sequences in a matter of seconds to identify diseases accurately, according to a new breakthrough.

Terry Brown, working with Charlotte Roberts, both professors at Durham University (UK), used a next-gen sequencing approach, including hybridization capture technology, to identify tuberculosis (TB) genes in a 19th century female skeleton found in a crypt in Leeds.

Roberts said: “We’re really pleased with the results of this study and that the technology works. It will save a lot of time in the future.

“We now hope to publish more of the huge amounts of data we have acquired from the sequencing.” Their study is part of wider research into the identification of strains of TB in skeletons dating from 100 AD to the late 19th century.

It’s hoped that understanding how the disease has evolved over time will help improve treatments and vaccines. After HIV it kills more people than any other infectious disease, according to a Durham statement.

Certain strains of TB affect the sufferer’s bones, especially in the spine. The marks made by the disease remain evident on the bones long after the person’s death.

It’s this evidence that Roberts used to find suitable skeletons to screen for tuberculosis genes.

She sourced 500 skeletons from across Europe that showed evidence of TB dating from the Roman period to the 19th century. Bone samples from these skeletons were screened for TB DNA, and of those 100 were chosen for this particular study.

Roberts explained: “So many skeletons were needed as it’s very hard to tell if any DNA will have survived in the bones. You don’t really know if there will be any present until you start screening and in the past that has been a lengthy process.”

Brown and team then searched for TB gene sequences. Because it is a bacterial disease the bacteria’s DNA can remain in the bones after death.

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