A 14th-century horror has met 21st-century science in the most recent research into the Black Death, the disease that claimed from a third to a half of medieval Europe’s population. The exact cause of the plague has been in dispute. Most scholars blame Yersinia pestis, a bacterium carried by flea-infested rats. Some scholars have argued that the plague was caused by the anthrax bacterium or an agent similar to the Ebola virus.
The Yersinia pestis argument has gained ground since a team of scientists extracted DNA from the teeth of skeletons in a London cemetery devoted to Black Death victims. The scientists found Y. pestis and sequenced the bacterium’s genome—its entire record of hereditary information. They found that Y. pestis was the ancestor of all modern plague bacteria, but the strain that caused the Black Death no longer exists. That’s a good thing, too, since during the Middle Ages the Black Death killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. Plague still affects about 2,000 humans per year, but the modern strain does not spread like the medieval disease did, and antibiotics are usually effective against it. Still on researchers’ to-do list, though, is finding the genetic reason why the 14th-century version of the plague was so much more powerful than its modern descendants.
This work on Y. pestis is the first time that scientists have sequenced the genome of an ancient germ. The same method used for Y. pestis could be used to shed new light on other historical diseases, including predictions for their reappearance.
Image credit: DEA/A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images
- Is the Black Death the Ancestor of All Modern Plagues?
This article summarizes the genome sequencing study.
(Source: HISTORY.com, October 12, 2011)
- A Draft Genome of Yersinia pestis from Victims of the Black Death
Read the full description of the genome sequencing story here.
(Source: Nature, October 12, 2011)
- Researchers Reconstruct Genome of the Black Death; Bacteria Found to Be Ancestor of All Modern Plagues
Get all the details, including information on other deadly outbreaks of plague, from Science Daily.
(Source: Science Daily, October 12, 2011)
- Video: New Research on “Black Death”
Visit the cemetery of the Black Death victims and watch an interview with one of the researchers.
(Source: CNN.com, October 13, 2011)
- Black Death
Review the facts about the Black Death at this site.
(Source: Wikipedia; accessed October 20, 2011)