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Concept: Black Death


The bacteria Yersinia pestis is the etiological agent of plague and has caused human pandemics with millions of deaths in historic times. How and when it originated remains contentious. Here, we report the oldest direct evidence of Yersinia pestis identified by ancient DNA in human teeth from Asia and Europe dating from 2,800 to 5,000 years ago. By sequencing the genomes, we find that these ancient plague strains are basal to all known Yersinia pestis. We find the origins of the Yersinia pestis lineage to be at least two times older than previous estimates. We also identify a temporal sequence of genetic changes that lead to increased virulence and the emergence of the bubonic plague. Our results show that plague infection was endemic in the human populations of Eurasia at least 3,000 years before any historical recordings of pandemics.

Concepts: Bacteria, Europe, Yersinia pestis, Bubonic plague, Black Death, Plague, World population, Third Pandemic


The 14th-18th century pandemic of Yersinia pestis caused devastating disease outbreaks in Europe for almost 400 years. The reasons for plague’s persistence and abrupt disappearance in Europe are poorly understood, but could have been due to either the presence of now-extinct plague foci in Europe itself, or successive disease introductions from other locations. Here we present five Y. pestis genomes from one of the last European outbreaks of plague, from 1722 in Marseille, France. The lineage identified has not been found in any extant Y. pestis foci sampled to date, and has its ancestry in strains obtained from victims of the 14th century Black Death. These data suggest the existence of a previously uncharacterized historical plague focus that persisted for at least three centuries. We propose that this disease source may have been responsible for the many resurgences of plague in Europe following the Black Death.

Concepts: Pandemic, Italy, Yersinia pestis, Bubonic plague, Black Death, Plague, Third Pandemic, London


The Black Death, originating in Asia, arrived in the Mediterranean harbors of Europe in 1347 CE, via the land and sea trade routes of the ancient Silk Road system. This epidemic marked the start of the second plague pandemic, which lasted in Europe until the early 19th century. This pandemic is generally understood as the consequence of a singular introduction of Yersinia pestis, after which the disease established itself in European rodents over four centuries. To locate these putative plague reservoirs, we studied the climate fluctuations that preceded regional plague epidemics, based on a dataset of 7,711 georeferenced historical plague outbreaks and 15 annually resolved tree-ring records from Europe and Asia. We provide evidence for repeated climate-driven reintroductions of the bacterium into European harbors from reservoirs in Asia, with a delay of 15 ± 1 y. Our analysis finds no support for the existence of permanent plague reservoirs in medieval Europe.

Concepts: Infectious disease, Middle Ages, Europe, Pandemic, Italy, Yersinia pestis, Black Death, Silk Road


The successful reconstruction of an ancient bacterial genome from archaeological material presents an important methodological advancement for infectious disease research. The reliability of evolutionary histories inferred by the incorporation of ancient data, however, are highly contingent upon the level of genetic diversity represented in modern genomic sequences that are publicly accessible, and the paucity of available complete genomes restricts the level of phylogenetic resolution that can be obtained. Here we add to our original analysis of the Yersinia pestis strain implicated in the Black Death by consolidating our dataset for 18 modern genomes with single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) data for an additional 289 strains at over 600 positions. The inclusion of this additional data reveals a cluster of Y. pestis strains that diverge at a time significantly in advance of the Black Death, with divergence dates roughly coincident with the Plague of Justinian (6(th) to 8(th) century AD). In addition, the analysis reveals further clues regarding potential radiation events that occurred immediately preceding the Black Death, and the legacy it may have left in modern Y. pestis populations. This work reiterates the need for more publicly available complete genomes, both modern and ancient, to achieve an accurate understanding of the history of this bacterium.

Concepts: DNA, Infectious disease, Virus, Genome, Yersinia pestis, Bubonic plague, Black Death, Third Pandemic


Pandemics and epidemics have ravaged human societies throughout history. The plague, cholera, and smallpox killed tens of millions of people and destroyed civilizations. In the past 100 years, the “Spanish Flu” of 1918-1919 and HIV-AIDS caused the deaths of nearly 100 million people. Advances in medicine have transformed our defenses against the threat of infectious disease. Better hygiene, antibiotics, diagnostics, and vaccines have given us far more effective tools for preventing and responding to outbreaks. Yet the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and the recent West African Ebola outbreak show that we cannot be . . .

Concepts: Epidemiology, Infectious disease, Influenza, Severe acute respiratory syndrome, Smallpox, Pandemic, Black Death, Pandemics


Plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, can spread through human populations by multiple transmission pathways. Today, most human plague cases are bubonic, caused by spillover of infected fleas from rodent epizootics, or pneumonic, caused by inhalation of infectious droplets. However, little is known about the historical spread of plague in Europe during the Second Pandemic (14-19th centuries), including the Black Death, which led to high mortality and recurrent epidemics for hundreds of years. Several studies have suggested that human ectoparasite vectors, such as human fleas (Pulex irritans) or body lice (Pediculus humanus humanus), caused the rapidly spreading epidemics. Here, we describe a compartmental model for plague transmission by a human ectoparasite vector. Using Bayesian inference, we found that this model fits mortality curves from nine outbreaks in Europe better than models for pneumonic or rodent transmission. Our results support that human ectoparasites were primary vectors for plague during the Second Pandemic, including the Black Death (1346-1353), ultimately challenging the assumption that plague in Europe was predominantly spread by rats.

Concepts: Infectious disease, Pandemic, Yersinia pestis, Bubonic plague, Black Death, Plague, World population, Head louse


Yersinia pestis, the etiologic agent of the disease plague, has been implicated in three historical pandemics. These include the third pandemic of the 19(th) and 20(th) centuries, during which plague was spread around the world, and the second pandemic of the 14(th)-17(th) centuries, which included the infamous epidemic known as the Black Death. Previous studies have confirmed that Y. pestis caused these two more recent pandemics. However, a highly spirited debate still continues as to whether Y. pestis caused the so-called Justinianic Plague of the 6(th)-8(th) centuries AD. By analyzing ancient DNA in two independent ancient DNA laboratories, we confirmed unambiguously the presence of Y. pestis DNA in human skeletal remains from an Early Medieval cemetery. In addition, we narrowed the phylogenetic position of the responsible strain down to major branch 0 on the Y. pestis phylogeny, specifically between nodes N03 and N05. Our findings confirm that Y. pestis was responsible for the Justinianic Plague, which should end the controversy regarding the etiology of this pandemic. The first genotype of a Y. pestis strain that caused the Late Antique plague provides important information about the history of the plague bacillus and suggests that the first pandemic also originated in Asia, similar to the other two plague pandemics.

Concepts: Pandemic, Yersinia pestis, Bubonic plague, Black Death, Plague, Third Pandemic, Pandemics, Plague of Justinian


Yersinia pestis causes the fatal respiratory disease pneumonic plague. Y. pestis recently evolved from the gastrointestinal pathogen Y. pseudotuberculosis; however, it is not known at what point Y. pestis gained the ability to induce a fulminant pneumonia. Here we show that the acquisition of a single gene encoding the protease Pla was sufficient for the most ancestral, deeply rooted strains of Y. pestis to cause pneumonic plague, indicating that Y. pestis was primed to infect the lungs at a very early stage in its evolution. As Y. pestis further evolved, modern strains acquired a single amino-acid modification within Pla that optimizes protease activity. While this modification is unnecessary to cause pneumonic plague, the substitution is instead needed to efficiently induce the invasive infection associated with bubonic plague. These findings indicate that Y. pestis was capable of causing pneumonic plague before it evolved to optimally cause invasive infections in mammals.

Concepts: Immune system, Bacteria, Yersinia pestis, Bubonic plague, Black Death, Plague, Pneumonic plague, Bacterial diseases


The Justinianic Plague, which started in the 6(th) century and lasted to the mid-8(th) century, is thought to be the first of three historically documented plague pandemics causing massive casualties. Historical accounts and molecular data suggest the bacterium Yersinia pestis as its etiological agent. Here we present a new high-coverage (17.9 fold) Y. pestis genome obtained from a 6(th)-century skeleton recovered from a southern German burial site close to Munich. The reconstructed genome enabled the detection of 30 unique substitutions as well as structural differences that have not been previously described. We report indels affecting a lacl family transcription regulator gene as well as non-synonymous substitutions in the nrdE, fadJ and pcp genes, that have been suggested as plague virulence determinants or have been shown to be up-regulated in different models of plague infection. In addition, we identify 19 false positive substitutions in a previously published lower coverage Y. pestis genome from another archaeological site of the same time period and geographical region that is otherwise genetically identical to the high coverage genome sequence reported here, suggesting low genetic diversity of the plague during the 6th century in rural southern Germany.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Bacteria, Virus, Genome, Yersinia pestis, Black Death


Ancient DNA (aDNA) recovered from plague victims of the second plague pandemic (14th to 17th century), excavated from two different burial sites in Germany, and spanning a time period of more than 300 years, was characterized using single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) analysis. Of 30 tested skeletons 8 were positive for Yersinia pestis-specific nucleic acid, as determined by qPCR targeting the pla gene. In one individual (MP-19-II), the pla copy number in DNA extracted from tooth pulp was as high as 700 gene copies/μl, indicating severe generalized infection. All positive individuals were identical in all 16 SNP positions, separating phylogenetic branches within nodes N07_N10 (14 SNPs), N07_N08 (SNP s19) and N06_N07 (s545), and were highly similar to previously investigated plague victims from other European countries. Thus, beside the assumed continuous reintroduction of Y. pestis from central Asia in multiple waves during the second pandemic, long-term persistence of Y. pestis in Europe in a yet unknown reservoir host has also to be considered.

Concepts: DNA, Genetics, Molecular biology, SNP array, Single-nucleotide polymorphism, Europe, Yersinia pestis, Black Death