Meet the Winners of the 2022 Best Article Award From FEMS Microbes

20-02-23 Joseph Shuttleworth

Zandra Fagernäs, Domingo Salazar-García, María Haber Uriarte, Azucena Avilés Fernández, Amanda Henry, Joaquín Lomba Maurandi, Andrew Ozga, Irina Velsko and Christina Warinner wrote the excellent research article “Understanding the microbial biogeography of ancient human dentitions to guide study design and interpretation  for our open access journal FEMS Microbes. The Editor-in-Chiefs of FEMS Microbes chose this paper as their favourite for 2022.

We interviewed all the authors to find out more about the inspiration behind this paper:

From top left to bottom: Amanda Henry (collecting material), Christina Warinner, Domingo C Salazar-García, and Zandra Fagernäs (working in the ancient DNA cleanroom)


Could you provide a brief, simple overview of the topic your paper covers? 

Archaeological dental calculus contains a tremendous amount of information about our past, from health and disease, to diet and living environment of an individual. However, researchers have so far not known how much sampling location within the dentition might bias the results – studies of modern dental plaque have shown some spatial patterns in microbial distribution, but were such patterns also present in the past, and do they preserve after hundreds or thousands of years buried in the ground? To answer this question, we studied 4,500-5,000 year old samples of dental calculus through metagenomics, and mapped out the distribution of microbial taxa in the oral cavity. 

Distribution of ancient human reads and environmental contaminant reads across the dental arcade, from ”Understanding the microbial biogeography of ancient human dentitions to guide study design and interpretation
What patterns did you find in the interindividual differences in microbial composition? 

We found that there are bigger differences in the composition of the ancient oral microbiome between individuals than there are within the dentition of an individual. This means that we can study a single sample of dental calculus from each individual without introducing any major biases, thereby minimizing the amount of destructive analyses that are conducted on this limited archaeological material. However, as we do find some minor patterns also within the oral cavity, we recommend that researchers as much as possible record the sampling location in the dentition and include this information in their analyses. 

What encouraged you to perform research in this area of microbiology? 

Given that the microbes in dental calculus are encased in a mineral matrix, they have the potential to preserve biomolecules over very long time spans. And dental calculus has been recovered from the archaeological record very far back in time – as far as the Miocene! By studying the oral microbiome, as well as pathogens that become encased in dental calculus, we can research aspects of our past that would otherwise be out of reach, such as different aspects of health and diet of past populations. 

View of a sector of the prehistoric burial. Photo by J. Lomba Maurandi
What do you see as the next steps in this area of research? 

We are excited about expanding our analysis of ancient human microbiomes, and further exploring how the oral microbiome varies through time and space. One topic we are actively working on is trying to improve our ability to de novo assemble ancient bacterial genomes, which will allow us to study bacteria that may be poorly known, poorly studied, or even extinct today. 

Read the 2022 award winning paper: Understanding the microbial biogeography of ancient human dentitions to guide study design and interpretation

See more FEMS Journals Article Awards

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