Genetic analysis reveals that same bacterium that led to Black Death also caused first great plague epidemic centuries before
Black Death or mid-fourteenth century plague was undoubtedly the most famous historical pandemic but the first great plague pandemic that caused wide-scale devastation occurred long before it and it is called the Plague of Justinian. The Justinian Plague started in sixth century and continued till eight century, killing 50 million people throughout the Byzantine Empire.
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Now, a latest research suggests that same bacterium that caused Black Death was also responsible for Justinian Plague.
To arrive at this conclusion, researchers in Germany reconstructed the genome of the bacteria responsible for the Justinian plague. The bacterium, called Yersinia pestis, was recovered from the sixth century skeletons in Altenerding near Munich and they were among the victims of Justinian plague. Genetic analysis showed that Justinian plague was caused by the same bacterium which led to a plague breakout in Europe in the form of Black Death during Middle Ages, though genetically different strains.
“The bacterium causing the Black Death and the Justinianic one is the same bacterium, Y. pestis, and this was already reported on in previous studies. However, the strains of the bacteria -- you can also call them variations if you like -- causing the two pandemics were different, and the Justinianic strain is extinct today.” Lead author Michal Feldman from Max Planck Institute and the University of Tubingen in Germany said in a statement.
Research also suggests that the variations of Yersinia pestis caused at least three recorded plague pandemics. The Justinian plague was the first, Black Death was the second while the third emerged in China in late 19th century, giving rise to many other plague variations, some of which still exist today. But where was plague hiding between outbreaks and how reached from one place to another remains a mystery.
“How the pathogen reached southern Germany is at present unknown. Possibly, it traveled across the Alps from the Mediterranean or from France and western Germany,” said Feldman. “The exact trade routes that the disease traveled in are a subject of debate among scholars.”
Nevertheless, the genetic analysis of ancient plague sheds more light into the history and biology of the disease and also reveals how diverse the strain was.
Feldman says.“Our research confirms that the Justinianic plague reached far beyond the historically documented affected region and provides new insight into the evolutionary history of Yersinia pestis, illustrating the potential of ancient genomic reconstructions to broaden our understanding of pathogen evolution and of historical events.”