Rome burned, but Athens, it seems, was brought low by typhoid fever. The Plague of Athens, which started in 430 B.C., marked the end of the city's dominance of the ancient world and caused the death of a third of its population, including the famed military commander Pericles. But what caused this plague? Though the historian Thucydides recorded its symptoms in graphic detail -- including ''bilious vomiting," and ''extreme diarrhea" -- centuries of speculation could not confirm the specific disease. Now, old teeth and new techniques for studying DNA provide an answer. Manolis Papagrigorakis at the University of Athens Dental School and his colleagues in Greece extracted teeth from a mass burial site in Athens dated to the time of the plague. When they tested the inner ''dental pulp" for the remains of ancient microbes, they found bits of DNA from Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi -- suggesting that a typhoid epidemic ravaged the Athenians, crowded within the city under siege by the Spartans.
BOTTOM LINE: This study of nearly 2,500-year-old DNA incriminates typhoid fever as the cause of the Plague of Athens, ending the Golden Age of Pericles, a high point of Greek culture. If confirmed, this would solve one of the most debated puzzles in medical history, pushing aside dozens of suggested culprits from anthrax to Ebola -- and bolster the use of dental DNA as a tool for solving historical mysteries.
CAUTIONS: The wave of illness that swept from Ethiopia to Egypt and on to Greece in 430-426 B.C. was a complex epidemic. ''There might have been several pathogens implicated in the cause of the Plague," Papagrigorakis warns, ''and not just one." Additionally, the DNA they found was very similar to modern typhoid, but was not a perfect match.
WHAT'S NEXT: These results await confirmation by an independent laboratory. Papagrigorakis said his team would like to continue their investigation, looking at these teeth for other, not-yet-identified diseases that might have contributed to the ancient plague. This study may also point toward a better understanding of the genetics of modern typhoid fever, a menace that still claims 600,000 lives each year in the developing world.
WHERE TO FIND IT: International Journal of Infectious Diseases, Jan. 23, 2006, www.elsevier-international.com/journals/suppfile/flat/ijid_athens.pdf
Women miscarry boys more than girls during bad times
During periods of disaster and disruption -- following a major earthquake, for example -- woman are more likely to miscarry male fetuses than female ones. A new study by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, may explain why this is. The researchers analyzed records of Swedish babies born from 1751 to 1912 and calculated their lifespans as a measure of their heartiness. They found that males who make it to term during stressful times are generally stronger and live longer than males born during calm times. Male fetuses tend to be less hardy than female ones, and the researchers believe this is why male fetuses are more likely to be miscarried during times of disruption. This stress response may be an adaptation to prevent the birth of weak children -- who are unlikely to produce offspring of their own -- during difficult times.
BOTTOM LINE: Males born during times of maternal stress are heartier and longer lived than boys born in more typical times.
CAUTIONS: Modern catastrophes -- such as terrorist attacks -- may not affect pregnant women in the same way as the natural disasters affected the people studied, all of whom were born before 1913.
WHAT'S NEXT: More work is needed to determine the biological mechanisms by which stress increases the rates of miscarriages.
WHERE TO FIND IT: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jan. 23, 2006
MICHAEL E. HOCHMAN
Estrogen early in menopause may boost heart health
For millions of women already confused about postmenopausal hormone therapy, there's a new twist. Last week, researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital reported that women who start taking hormones within four years of menopause -- as opposed to those who wait until they are in their 60s -- actually have a 30 percent lower risk of heart disease than women who never use hormones. This was true whether a woman took estrogen alone or estrogen plus progestin. In other words, timing counts. Nearly four years ago, the Women's Health Initiative, which involved some of the same Brigham researchers, found that combination therapy increased the risk of heart disease and stroke. But that study involved women who waited 10 or more years after menopause to start treatment. The new research, part of the Nurses Health Study, focused on recently menopausal women. ''Taken together, the two studies show that the timing is a key factor," said Dr. JoAnn Manson, an author on both papers and chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at the Brigham.
BOTTOM LINE: If you need hormone therapy, begin taking it early in menopause.
CAUTIONS: The new study has not yet been confirmed by other research and did not look at other potential risks of hormone use, such as blood clots and breast cancer.
WHAT'S NEXT: The debate over hormones is far from over. More data from the Women's Health Initiative will be released in early February. Yet another study, the Kronos Early Estrogen Prevention Study, or KEEPS, is still enrolling recently menopausal women. (If interested, call 617-732-9870.)
WHERE TO FIND IT: The Journal of Women's Health, January/February 2006, www.liebertpub.com/jwh