He and his crew likely brought the bacterium out of the New World, leading to its global spread, a genetic analysis finds. That conclusion is hotly debated, however.
A comparison of 23 strains of Treponema pallidum bacteriumfound that the modern variety that causes the sexually transmitted disease was most closely related to bacteria collected from a remote tribe in Guyana.
Because the tribe has had little contact with the outside world, researchers think the strain is very close to what was circulating in the Americas at the time of Columbus' voyage in 1492.
For example, scientists found evidence of venereal syphilis in the teeth of a skeleton from 13th century Turkey.
The new study "dismisses this evidence much too easily," Mays said.