Black Death Hid For Centuries Before Re-emerging To Kill Europeans, Study Finds

Posted: Jan 24 2016, 3:58pm CST | by , in News | Latest Science News


Black Death Hid for Centuries Before Re-emerging to Kill Europeans, Study Finds
Plague in Marseille 1720. Credit: Max Planck Institute

Bacteria Yersinia pestis laid dormant for centuries before leading to devastation in Europe in the 18th century.

Black Death or mid-fourteenth century plague was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, which resulted in kiling around 75 million people or around 30-50% of Europe’s entire population during the 14th century.  The disease emerged again and wreaked havoc in the 18th century.

The resurgence of the plague raises a big question. Where did the disease go between those two major outbreaks? The answer is: it may be hiding somewhere in Europe. 

Plague is caused by Yersinia pestis bacteria. An international team of researchers has found that the bacteria laid dormant over the next three centuries and made a devastating comeback in 1720.

To reach the conclusion, researchers from Max Planck Institute and collaborators have reconstructed complete pathogen genomes from victims of Great Plague of Marseille (1720-1722), which is assumed to be the last outbreak of medieval plague in Europe.

Researchers examined the teeth taken from plague pits or mass graves in which the victims of the Black Death were buried. It allowed them to access tiny fragments of DNA that were preserved there for hundreds of years.

“We faced a significant challenge in reconstructing these ancient genomes,” said computer analyst Alexander Herbig. “To our surprise, the 18th century plague seems to be a form that is no longer circulating, and it descends directly from the disease that entered Europe during the Black Death, several centuries earlier.”

Since the plague of that time was different from all the modern form of plagues, researchers also claim that they have identified a new extinct form of the disease.

Researchers say that Marseille, a port city in southern France, was the hub of trade in the region at that time. So, there is a possibly that plague may have been brought there from somewhere else through ship and cargo.

“It’s a chilling thought that plague might have once been hiding right around the corner throughout Europe, living in a host which is not known to us yet,” said Johannes Krause, director of Department of Archaeogenetics at Max Planck Institute.

“Future work might help us to identify the mysterious host species, its range and the reason for its disappearance."

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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.




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