Yorkshire scientists take step towards finding a cure for tuberculosis
The new strain, known as Lineage 8, was found by chance in Rwanda - it has taken researchers two years to sequence and analyse its genome.
Conor Meehan, one of the lead researchers from the university, described the discovery as a “missing link” in the evolution of one of the world’s oldest and most deadly pathogens.
Mr Meehan, a lecturer in molecular microbiology from the department of life sciences at the University of Bradford added: "Tuberculosis is one of the oldest pathogens to affect humans.
"The pathogen has several different strains or ‘lineages’. We have known about six lineages for over a decade and a seventh was discovered in Ethiopia just over five years ago.
"Now we have found an eighth lineage in Rwanda and Uganda, which seems to be much older that the other lineages and so we think it could be a missing link in the evolution of what causes TB."
The work was a collaboration between the University of Bradford, the Institute of Tropical Medicine, Belgium, the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, Switzerland, the CNRS at the Institut Pasteur de Lille and the Rwanda Biomedical Centre.
Scientists took two years to synthesise and analyse the new genome, confirming its lineage status. In the process, they also discovered that while the strain is already resistant to modern treatments, it seems to infect far fewer people than other strains.
Mr Meehan said: "Understanding this new lineage tells us more about what we need to do in terms of coming up with cures.
"We all want to get to a vaccine and there are hints in this if it's not spreading as much, it's a strain we can work with towards achieving that end."
Tuberculosis infects an estimated 4,500 people a year in UK and 10m worldwide with 1.5m deaths.
In Bradford, it infects around 100 people a year. The disease is thought to have evolved from Mycobacterium canettii, discovered in 1969, which likely has the ability to live in the environment, unlike tuberculosis, which needs human hosts.
"There is still a lot of work to do in terms of finding out where TB came from but this discovery takes us closer to that," said Mr Meehan.
He added: "We tend to think of diseases in human terms. While humans reproduce every 20 years or so, bacteria reproduce every day or even every few minutes. When they are exposed to medication, such as penicillin, they undergo random mutations in their DNA. Some of those will allow them to become resistant."
Although only discovered at the end of the 19th century, evidence suggests tuberculosis has been infecting humans for thousands of years.
Typically, it is spread through droplets in the air and because it is very slow growing, it can take up to a year before symptoms appear, by which time it will already have caused significant damage.
The results were published in the study: "A sister lineage of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex discovered in the African Great Lakes region."
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