It's almost Halloween and, to honor that, there’s news that researchers at The University of Manchester in the UK have demonstrated that a technology that can analyze millions of gene sequences can quickly and accurately identify diseases even in old skeletons.

The scientists used a next generation sequencing approach, including hybridization capture technology, to identify tuberculosis (TB) genes in a 19th century female skeleton found in a crypt in Leeds. Their study is part of wider research into the identification of strains of TB in skeletons dating from 100 AD to the late 19th century. They began with 500 skeletons from across Europe that showed evidence of TB dating from the Roman period to the 19th century.

Certain strains of TB affect the sufferer's bones, especially the spine. The marks made by the disease remain evident on the bones long after the person's death. Bone samples were screened for TB DNA, and 100 were chosen for this particular study. Each small section of bone was ground up and placed in a solution, and then sequenced. Because it is a bacterial disease the bacteria's DNA can remain in the bones after death.

The data placed the historic strain of TB in a group that is uncommon today, but was known to have been present in North America in the 19th century. In fact it was very similar to a strain recorded in a tuberculosis patient in New York in 1905.

The researchers concluded that using hybridization capture and next generation gene sequencing is an accurate and effective way to obtain detailed genotypes of ancient varieties of tuberculosis. They say that understanding how the disease has evolved over time will help improve treatments and vaccines. Their findings were published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.