The photo you see is the one I noticed among many others published on Instagram. Being curious, I went to the author's page and learnt that it is Rezeda Tukhbatova, Ph.D. in biochemistry and microbiology of KFU Institute of Fundamental Medicine and Biology, who is now doing internship at the Paleogenetics Laboratory of the University of Tübingen (Germany). Rezeda explained to us whose tooth she had snapped a photo of, what disease Bolgar residents had suffered from, and why “the father of paleogenetics” had taken interest in her research.
- Rezeda, to begin with, a classical question: how did it all begin?
- I was interested in history and biology since I was a child. I dreamt to become an archeologist. But by the time I had to enter a university, I decided biology to be more interesting and challenging.
Three years later I got to the laboratory of Farida Alimova focused on the development of biologies for plants protection. But the child's dream was still alive and I suggested exploring archeological sites and burials and to my great surprise, Farida Alimova supported the idea.
During one of the trips I met archeologists and we took soil samples at Murzikha Burial (8-6 century B.C.) and Bolshiye Klyari Site (9-11 century A.D.). It was exciting to study these materials.
All the researches finally entered my master's thesis in microbiology and biochemistry “Microbiological Portrait of Archeological Monuments in Tatarstan” that I presented in 2008.
- What exactly did you study?
- We explored the diversity of microorganisms in buried soils (from burials and cultural layers), compared them to present-day soils and studied their biological reactivity. With a special attention we looked at the Trichoderma genus of fungi as they are of biotechnological importance.
- Why are they so important?
- Here is an example; one of the Trichoderma strains from the 3000-year-old burials has been used in Maysky Greenhouse Centre to protect vegetables from a dangerous pathogen Fusarium that causes rot.
Another strain was tested on mice and showed its anticancer activity. Now we are trying to separate an active substance and test it on cancer and normal cells.
- I had no idea that fungi of this age help somehow. But let's go back to the tooth you took a photo of.
- My postgraduate studies began at the Department of Microbiology. When Farida Alimova took the lead at the Department of Biochemistry, I followed her and met Olga Kravtsova there. She has been studying population genetics for 10 years; she separates DNA out of ancient human remains and compares it with modern populations.
- It was the very moment when you had an idea to explore what diseases ancient people suffered from, wasn't it?
- That's absolutely right. The idea was not new as it was focused on by global science for a long time. I have monitored many foreign articles in this area and found a number of related materials. However, there were no genetic researches in the field in Russia before.
- Why are teeth a favourite target of paleontologists' study?
- You see, DNA is an organic molecular and as anything organic it may suffer from microbial infections and further deteriorate. When we choose a tooth, we consider its DNA is more protected and affected by microbes.
- If I got it right , you started exploring archeological finds for infections. What diseases did people have several centuries ago?
- First samples studied by Olga Kravtsova were tested for tuberculosis, syphilis, plague and other diseases. Several samples were positive. Every tenth out of 250 studied skeletons suffered from tuberculosis. We have found 5 plague positive samples. Thus, it proved the archeologists' assumption that this horrible infection raged in Bolgar, having come from Crimea and heading further to Europe.
-Where did you get these samples?
- We found them in the Ancient Bolgar burials dated the 14th century.
- Why Bolgar?
- It was not by chance that we chose Bolgar. You surely know that Bolgar has been recently inscribed on UNESCO World Heritage List. In addition to this, Tatarstan Foundation for Revival of Historical and Cultural Monuments has been launched, and the University actively participates in it.
- I believe your research is essential not only historically. It is more important and interesting to learn how these infections evolved and how the human body got used to it. And it means, we'll be able to prevent their outbreaks and get to know how to control them.
- That's true, the deeper we went into the issue, the clearer it became for us that the common identification of a disease is not sufficient, it is necessary to profoundly study the genome structure.
Having read on the topic a lot I came to the conclusion that the leadership in the area belonged to Paleogenetics Laboratory of the University of Tübingen, headed by Johannes Krause, a 34 year old professor with h-index 26. He was the first to reconstruct a full genome of Yersinia pestis, the Black Death pathogen.
Before opening his own laboratory, Johannes Krause worked under the supervision of Svante Pääbo (h-index 76), so called “father of paleogenetics”, in Leipzig. Author of numerous publications in top scientific journals like Science and Nature, he participated in the deciphering of Neanderthal genome.
- Have you managed to meet Professor Krause?
- Even more! Last November we addressed to the Professor and he liked the idea of our research so much that agreed to take part in it. Thanks to the KFU Competitive Growth Programme we could launch a paleoanthropology and paleogenetics lab in Kazan Federal University where the Professor was invited as a scientific adviser.
Alexander Mikheyev from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (Japan) was invited to the lab for ancient people genome sequencing; Alexandra Buzhilova, corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Science, Director of Research Institute and Moscow State University Antropology Museum came to us to teach and conduct paleopatological research.
I can't help mentioning scientists of Kazan Federal University, Airat Sitdikov, who believed in our project and supported, and Ilgizar Galimzyanov having supplied us with samples and anthropological analysis data for many years.
- You have an amazing team. We hope you'll receive impressive results.
- It is too early to speak about the internship results as I have many experiments ahead and I really hope that samples from Tatarstan hide something interesting to write about in a good journal.