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McMaster University researcher Alison Devault examines an intestinal specimen from a patient who died from cholera during an 1849 outbreak of the disease in Philadelphia. Researchers from McMaster University, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and two other institutions used LLNL’s microbial detection array to identify two previously verified bacterial human pathogens. (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

LIVERMORE -- Scientists are turning to a novel kind of DNA detection technology to uncover clues on how devastating historical pandemics like the Black Death and cholera came about, and what made them so deadly.

For the first time, using the Lawrence Livermore Microbial Detection Array (LLMDA) -- a technology developed at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory that can identify bacteria, viruses and other organisms -- Livermore lab researchers and scientists from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada have successfully identified disease-causing pathogens from ancient human remains.

The team's research paper was released Thursday in the online journal Scientific Reports.

Lab scientists say the study shows microarrays -- which can detect pathogens more efficiently than traditional genome sequencing -- could lead to better understanding of the evolution of diseases and even predict future outbreaks.

"The microarray is unique in that it's about 10 times faster and 10 times cheaper than DNA sequencing," said Livermore lab biologist Crystal Jaing. "By using this technology in looking at ancient diseases, that can really help us understand the difference between ancient DNA and modern DNA."

In conducting the year-long study, researchers used the lab's microarray to test two samples previously known to contain pathogens. One sample, preserved from a patient who died during an 1849 cholera outbreak in Philadelphia correctly showed the presence of the killer disease. The other, a tooth from 14th century London, indicated presence of the plague.

Hendrik Poinar, the research team leader and an associate professor of evolutionary genetics at McMaster, said most bacterial pathogens go undetected in ancient remains due to contamination. Furthermore, genomic sequencing and analyzing the entire complex samples can be costly and time-consuming.

"The LLMDA selectively targets pathogens that are likely to be of interest from an evolutionary standpoint and appears to work well with heavily degraded DNA, typical of most fossil and archival remains, so this is an excellent tool," Poinar said in a news release.

Developed in 2008, the Livermore lab's microarray -- which contains 135,000 probes fitted onto a one-inch by three-inch glass slide -- can detect more than 8,000 viruses, bacteria, and other types of pathogens. While it's been used to analyze vaccine safety, human clinical samples and diseased animals, it hadn't been utilized on ancient pathogen DNA until the recent collaboration.

Livermore biologists Monica Borucki and James Thissen, and computer scientists Jonathan Allen, Shea Gardner and Kevin McLoughlin were also part of the research team. Two other institutions participated in the research -- the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the University of South Carolina.

Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.

PROBING A KILLER PAST
To read the research paper on detecting diseases in ancient human remains using Lawerence Livermore Lab's Microbrial Detection Array, visit http://bit.ly/1ourBCU