Fossilized human feces from 14th century contain antibiotic resistance genes

A team of French investigators has discovered viruses containing genes for antibiotic resistance in a fossilized fecal sample from 14th century Belgium, long before antibiotics were used in medicine.

“This is the first paper to analyze an ancient DNA viral metagenome,” says Rebecca Vega Thurber of Oregon State University, Corvallis, who was not involved in the research.

The viruses in the fecal sample are phages, which are viruses that infect bacteria, rather than infecting eukaryotic organisms such as animals, plants, and fungi. Most of the viral sequences the researchers found in the ancient coprolite (fossil fecal sample) were related to viruses currently known to infect bacteria commonly found in stools (and hence, in the human gastrointestinal tract), including both bacteria that live harmlessly, and even helpfully in the human gut, and human pathogens, says corresponding author Christelle Desnues of Aix Marseille Université.

The communities of phage within the coprolite were different, taxonomically, from communities seen within modern human fecal samples, but the functions they carry out appear to be conserved, says Desnues. That reinforces the hypothesis that the viral community plays a fundamental role within the human gastrointestinal tract, and one which remains unchanged after centuries, even while the human diet and other human conditions have been changing.

Over the last five years, considerable evidence has emerged that bacteria inhabiting the gut play an important role in maintaining human health, for example, as part of the human metabolic system, says Desnues. Her own research suggests that the bacteriophage infecting the gut bacteria may help maintain these bacteria. Among the genes found in the phage are antibiotic resistance genes and genes for resistance to toxic compounds. Both toxins and antibiotics are common in nature, and Desnues suggests that the resistance genes may simply be protecting the gut bacteria from them.

“Our evidence demonstrates that bacteriophages represent an ancient reservoir of resistance genes and that this dates at least as far back as the Middle Ages,” says Desnues.

“We were interested in viruses because these are 100 times more abundant than human cells in our bodies, but their diversity is still largely unexplored,” says Desnues. “In the present study, we thus focused on the viral fraction of the coprolite by using, for the first time, a combination of electron microscopy, high-throughput sequencing and suicide PCR approaches.”

Desnues and her collaborators are currently conducting further studies on the fungi and parasites in the coprolites, which she says will be of interest not only to microbiologists, but to historians, anthropologists, and evolutionists.

The genesis of the research was an urban renewal project in the city of Namur, Belgium, in which latrines dating back to the 1300s were discovered beneath a square.

Header Image : Example of a coprolite: Lloyds Bank coprolite : fossilised human faeces dug up from York, England by archaeologists. It contains pollen grains, cereal bran, and many eggs of whipworm and maw-worm (intestinal parasites).

Contributing Source : American Society for Microbiology

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  • Bert Kun

    imagine giving birth to that beauty

  • Jen Wear

    Lovely lol

  • Valerie Reffold

    Whoever passed that, didn’t have it easy, lol

  • Marijana Gjoreska


  • Jordan Boudway

    coprolites. lol.

  • Melinda Gallup

    I feel weird clicking “like” on this one LOL

  • Julie Berger Martin

    It looks just like the Coppergate coprolite.

  • Hel Len

    Ladies and Gentlemen, you have reached the end of the Internet.

  • Julie Berger Martin

    Oh, for some reason, I suspect because it is such a prime specimen, the photo of the poo in the article is in fact the Lloyds Bank coprolite.

  • Roy Glenn Jones


  • Archaeology News

    Hi Julie, as stated in the article the image is the Lloyds Coprolite. Unfortunately the American Society for Microbiology supplies no image content so we had to source the closest example we could find. Not many Creative Commons Poo pictures on the internet I can tell you!

  • Paul Shaughnessy

    That my friend is no fossil. Someone kept that as a trophy. :-)

  • Brent Hostad

    that is just gross ugh

  • Rick Gonzales

    This is proof… Bigfoot does exist

  • Rick Gonzales

    This is proof that Bigfoot does exist

  • Jason Papalexiou

    It’s kind of strange seeing it on display.

  • Bonnie Lawrence Smith


  • Gail Bentzinger

    Interesting! I wish I had a copralite for my Cabinet of Curiousities. I mean a genuine one, not some old dog poop from the park.

  • Michelle Villa

    Glad I didn’t have to rehydrate that!

  • Victor Serrano


  • Donna Arriola

    “Coprolite happens.”

  • Adrian Butler

    Way ahead of their time!

  • Elizabeth Deskoski

    I tell kids who come to my store that my big amethyst geode is fossilised dinosaur poo!! Keeps them away quick smart :)

  • Rolf Ketil Reinhardtsen

    Banana for scale?

  • Vivian James

    Hmmmmm – I bet that one hurt.

  • SoyCoyote

    salentoq Hay que recordar que históricamente los antibióticos primero fueron aislados de hongos del ambiente.

  • AliciaMarthaMiller

    Sigh, bread mold poultice for preventing infection has been used since Egyptian times – to be precise found in a Egyptian text that dates to 1000 years before Galen – so of course bacteria would develop a penicillin resistance since they were already using it in an unpurified form for thousands of years by that point.  Garlic mash was also used  which also is a natural antibiotic.  PLEASE if you are going to note something in medical history know enough of medical history to put it into context. It wasn’t happenstance or just environmental pressures, these bacteria had already undergone thousands of years of modified selection for antibiotic resistance.