Scientists find DNA of first-ever bubonic plague, warn of new outbreaks

Reuters / Fabrizio Bensch
Scientists have reconstructed the genome of the first recorded bubonic plague and compared it to two later pandemics. New sophisticated strains of the disease that killed millions of Europeans in the Middle Ages could break out in future, they warn. Researchers have managed to extract the DNA from the teeth of two victims of the Plague of Justinian, a pandemic that swept through the Byzantine Empire in AD 541-542, found in an early medieval cemetery in German Bavaria, according to a study published Tuesday by The Lancet Infectious Diseases. The Plague of Justinian is believed to have wiped out up to half the world’s known population at the time. The new research clearly links the Plague of Justinian with the Black Death bubonic plague, which was spread by rats in the 14th to 17th centuries, and a later pandemic in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The cemetery in Bavaria, Germany (A). The skeleton of a victim of the Plague of Justinian (C). Objects (E) from the grave (B) that helped scientists to estimate the plague victim’s death as occurring between 525 AD and 550 AD. A tooth from which the genome of the plague was extracted (D). (Image from thelancet.com)The research shows that what caused all three pandemics was the same Yersina pestis (Y pestis) bacterium. However, the strains of the first pandemic are sufficiently different from those of the later pandemics to prompt a warning from scientists, who believe that the same bacteria with different DNA lineages is a worrying sign. “These results show that rodent species worldwide represent important reservoirs for the repeated emergence of diverse lineages of Y pestis into human populations,” the study concludes. Hendrik Poinar, director of the Ancient DNA Centre at McMaster University in Canada, who led the new research, believes scientists have to keep an eye on plague in rodent populations – the disease’s major carriers – to be able to avert future human outbreaks. More
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