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Black Death genome reconstructed


It's hard to comprehend the impact of the Black Death. The "Great Pestilence" is believed to have originated somewhere in Northern Asia in the 1330s before hitting Europe in 1347. It killed an estimated 75 million people worldwide - that's around 25 per cent of all humans in existence at the time. Now in an effort to better understand modern infectious diseases, scientist have sequenced the entire genome of the Black Death.

Close-up of teeth from a plague victim (Photo: Museum of London) Hendrik Poinar, associate professor and director of the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre John Norden's map of London 1593 The jawbone from a victim of the Black Death (Photo: Museum of London) View all
The research is based on analysis of skeletal remains from the East Smithfield "plague pits" in London using a previously developed methodology for extracting degraded DNA fragments of the bacteria that caused the plague - Yersinia pestis.

The international team, led by researchers from McMaster University and the University of Tubingen, say this is the first time a reconstructed genome of any ancient pathogen has been drafted.

So why is this relevant in the 21st Century?

Descendants of the specific variant of the Yersinia pestis found in the 14th Century remain exist today, killing an estimated 2,000 people a year. By drafting the reconstruction of the genome scientist are able to see changes in the pathogen's evolution - which in this case have been minor - and gain a better understanding of such deadly infections.

"The genomic data show that this bacterial strain, or variant, is the ancestor of all modern plagues we have today worldwide," says Hendrik Poinar, associate professor and director of the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre. "Every outbreak across the globe today stems from a descendant of the medieval plague. With a better understanding of the evolution of this deadly pathogen, we are entering a new era of research into infectious disease."


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