Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Origins of plague

29.01.2014
Scientists reveal the cause of one of the most devastating pandemics in human history

An international team of scientists has discovered that two of the world’s most devastating plagues – the plague of Justinian and the Black Death, each responsible for killing as many as half the people in Europe — were caused by distinct Yersinia pestis strains, one that faded out on its own, the other leading to worldwide spread and re-emergence in the late 1800s. These findings suggest a new strain of plague could emerge again in humans in the future.


Burial of plague victims at the early medieval cemetery Aschheim. Foto: © H-P. Volpert


Fig. 2: Plague victim analyzed in the lab.
Foto: SNSB

Using sophisticated methods, researchers from various institutions including McMaster University, State Collection of Anthropology and Paleoanatomy, Munich, Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology, Munich, Northern Arizona University and the University of Sydney, isolated miniscule DNA fragments from the 1500-year-old teeth of two victims of the Justinian plague, buried in Bavaria, Germany. These are the oldest pathogen genomes obtained to date.

Using these short fragments, they reconstructed the genome of the oldest Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for the plague, and compared it to a database of genomes of more than a hundred contemporary strains.

The results are currently published in the online edition of Lancet Infectious Disease. They show the strain responsible for the Justinian outbreak was an evolutionary ‘dead-end’ and distinct from strains involved later in the Black Death and other plague pandemics that would follow.

“The research is both fascinating and perplexing, it generates new questions which need to be explored, for example why has this particular Y. pestis strain no genetic successors and died out?” questions Holger Scholz, head of the department of Bacteriology and Toxinology at the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology in Munich.

The findings are dramatic because little has been known about the origins or cause of the Justinian Plague– which helped bring an end to the Eastern Roman Empire – and its relationship to the Black Death, some 800 years later.

The Plague of Justinian struck in the sixth century and is estimated to have killed between 30 and 50 million people— virtually half the world’s population as it spread across Asia, North Africa, Arabia and Europe. The Black Death would strike some 800 years later with similar force, killing 50 million Europeans between just 1347 and 1351 alone.

The third pandemic, which spread from Hong Kong across the globe is likely a descendant of the Black Death strain and thus much more successful than the one responsible for the Justinian Plague.

“We know the bacterium Y. pestis has jumped from rodents into humans throughout history and rodent reservoirs of plague still exist today in many parts of the world. If the Justinian plague could erupt in the human population, cause a massive pandemic, and then die out, it suggests it could happen again. Fortunately we now have antibiotics that could be used to effectively treat plague, which lessens the chances of another large scale human pandemic” says Dave Wagner, an associate professor in the Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics at Northern Arizona University. However, we should not underestimate the devastating potential of plague, as in recent years strains emerged which are resistant to antibiotics, routinely used in plague therapy, adds Holger Scholz.

The samples used in the latest research were taken from two victims of the Justinian plague, buried in a gravesite in a small cemetery in the German town of Aschheim. The skeletal remains of the early medieval cemetery of Aschheim are examined by researchers of the Munich State Collection of Anthropology and Paleoanatomy since several years”, says Michaela Harbeck, curator of this institution which keeps ten thousands of skeletons, each of them an unique historical and biological source.

The skeletal remains yielded important clues and raised more questions.
Our response to modern infectious diseases is a direct outcome of lessons learned from ancestral pandemics, say the researchers.

Researchers now believe the Justinian Y. pestis strain originated in Asia, not in Africa as originally thought.

“This study raises intriguing questions about why a pathogen that was both so successful and so deadly today only infects about 3000 people each year. From our genome analyses we know that Yersinia pestis from both the Black Death and the Justinian plague was not more dangerous than present Y. pestis strains, says Holger Scholz. One testable possibility is that human populations evolved to become less susceptible,” says Holmes. “Another possibility is that changes in the climate became less suitable for the plague bacterium to survive in the wild,” says Julia Riehm of the Bundeswehr Institut of Microbiology.

Scientists hope their research could lead to a better understanding of the dynamics of modern infectious disease, including a form of the plague that still kills thousands every year.

The research was funded in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Canada Research Chairs Program, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council.

For more information please contact:

PD Dr. Holger C. Scholz
Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology
Neuherbergstarsse 11
80937 Munich
Holger1scholz@bundeswehr.org
++49 89 3168 2805
Dr. Michaela Harbeck
Staatssammlung of anthropology and paläoanatomy Munich
M.Harbeck@lrz.uni-muenchen.de

Dr. Eva-Maria Natzer | idw
Further information:
http://www.sapm.mwn.dew
http://www.snsb.de

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Surprising similarity in fly and mouse motion vision
30.07.2015 | Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology, Martinsried

nachricht Intracellular microlasers could allow precise labeling of a trillion individual cells
30.07.2015 | Massachusetts General Hospital

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: On the crest of the wave: Electronics on a time scale shorter than a cycle of light

Physicists from Regensburg and Marburg, Germany have succeeded in taking a slow-motion movie of speeding electrons in a solid driven by a strong light wave. In the process, they have unraveled a novel quantum phenomenon, which will be reported in the forthcoming edition of Nature.

The advent of ever faster electronics featuring clock rates up to the multiple-gigahertz range has revolutionized our day-to-day life. Researchers and...

Im Focus: Superfast fluorescence sets new speed record

Plasmonic device has speed and efficiency to serve optical computers

Researchers have developed an ultrafast light-emitting device that can flip on and off 90 billion times a second and could form the basis of optical computing.

Im Focus: Unlocking the rice immune system

Joint BioEnergy Institute study identifies bacterial protein that is key to protecting rice against bacterial blight

A bacterial signal that when recognized by rice plants enables the plants to resist a devastating blight disease has been identified by a multi-national team...

Im Focus: Smarter window materials can control light and energy

Researchers in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin are one step closer to delivering smart windows with a new level of energy efficiency, engineering materials that allow windows to reveal light without transferring heat and, conversely, to block light while allowing heat transmission, as described in two new research papers.

By allowing indoor occupants to more precisely control the energy and sunlight passing through a window, the new materials could significantly reduce costs for...

Im Focus: Simulations lead to design of near-frictionless material

Argonne scientists used Mira to identify and improve a new mechanism for eliminating friction, which fed into the development of a hybrid material that exhibited superlubricity at the macroscale for the first time. Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF) researchers helped enable the groundbreaking simulations by overcoming a performance bottleneck that doubled the speed of the team's code.

While reviewing the simulation results of a promising new lubricant material, Argonne researcher Sanket Deshmukh stumbled upon a phenomenon that had never been...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

3rd Euro Bio-inspired - International Conference and Exhibition on Bio-inspired Materials

23.07.2015 | Event News

Clash of Realities – International Conference on the Art, Technology and Theory of Digital Games

10.07.2015 | Event News

World Conference on Regenerative Medicine in Leipzig: Last chance to submit abstracts until 2 July

25.06.2015 | Event News

 
Latest News

Roentgen prize goes to Dr Eleftherios Goulielmakis

30.07.2015 | Awards Funding

Intracellular microlasers could allow precise labeling of a trillion individual cells

30.07.2015 | Life Sciences

Real-time imaging of lung lesions during surgery helps localize tumors and improve precision

30.07.2015 | Health and Medicine

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>