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


The medieval Black Death (c. 1347-1351) was one of the most devastating epidemics in human history. It killed tens of millions of Europeans, and recent analyses have shown that the disease targeted elderly adults and individuals who had been previously exposed to physiological stressors. Following the epidemic, there were improvements in standards of living, particularly in dietary quality for all socioeconomic strata. This study investigates whether the combination of the selective mortality of the Black Death and post-epidemic improvements in standards of living had detectable effects on survival and mortality in London. Samples are drawn from several pre- and post-Black Death London cemeteries. The pre-Black Death sample comes from the Guildhall Yard (n = 75) and St. Nicholas Shambles (n = 246) cemeteries, which date to the 11th-12th centuries, and from two phases within the St. Mary Spital cemetery, which date to between 1120-1300 (n = 143). The St. Mary Graces cemetery (n = 133) was in use from 1350-1538 and thus represents post-epidemic demographic conditions. By applying Kaplan-Meier analysis and the Gompertz hazard model to transition analysis age estimates, and controlling for changes in birth rates, this study examines differences in survivorship and mortality risk between the pre- and post-Black Death populations of London. The results indicate that there are significant differences in survival and mortality risk, but not birth rates, between the two time periods, which suggest improvements in health following the Black Death, despite repeated outbreaks of plague in the centuries after the Black Death.

Concepts: Death, Black metal, London, Middle Ages, Infectious disease, Demography, Pandemic, Black Death


Yersinia pestis has caused at least three human plague pandemics. The second (Black Death, 14-17th centuries) and third (19-20th centuries) have been genetically characterised, but there is only a limited understanding of the first pandemic, the Plague of Justinian (6-8th centuries). To address this gap, we sequenced and analysed draft genomes of Y pestis obtained from two individuals who died in the first pandemic.

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


Plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, is one of the deadliest infectious diseases in human history, and still causes worrying outbreaks in Africa and South America. Despite the historical and current importance of plague, several questions remain unanswered concerning its transmission routes and infection risk factors. The plague outbreak that started in September 1665 in the Derbyshire village of Eyam claimed 257 lives over 14 months, wiping out entire families. Since previous attempts at modelling the Eyam plague, new data have been unearthed from parish records revealing a much more complete record of the disease. Using a stochastic compartmental model and Bayesian analytical methods, we found that both rodent-to-human and human-to-human transmission played an important role in spreading the infection, and that they accounted, respectively, for a quarter and three-quarters of all infections, with a statistically significant seasonality effect. We also found that the force of infection was stronger for infectious individuals living in the same household compared with the rest of the village. Poverty significantly increased the risk of disease, whereas adulthood decreased the risk. These results on the Eyam outbreak contribute to the current debate on the relative importance of plague transmission routes.

Concepts: Africa, Transmission and infection of H5N1, Black Death, Infection, Disease, Yersinia pestis, Infectious disease, Epidemiology


Plague is an ancient disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and transmitted by rodent flea bites that continues to surprise us with first-ever events. This review documents plague in human cases in the 1st decade of the 21st century and updates our knowledge of clinical manifestations, transmission during outbreaks, diagnostic testing, antimicrobial treatment, and vaccine development. In the United States, 56 persons were reported to have the disease, of which seven died. Worldwide, 21,725 persons were affected with 1,612 deaths, for a case-fatality rate of 7.4%. The Congo reported more cases than any other country, including two large outbreaks of pneumonic plague, surpassing Madagascar, which had the most cases in the previous decade. Two United States scientists suffered fatal accidental exposures: a wildlife biologist, who carried out an autopsy on a mountain lion in Arizona in 2007, and a geneticist with subclinical hemochromatosis in Chicago, who was handling an avirulent strain of Y. pestis in 2009. Antimicrobial drugs given early after the onset of symptoms prevented many deaths; those recommended for treatment and prophylaxis included gentamicin, doxycycline, and fluoroquinolones, although fluoroquinolones have not been adequately tested in humans. Fleas that do not have their guts blocked by clotted blood meals were shown to be better transmitters of plague than blocked fleas. Under development for protection against bioterrorist use, a subunit vaccine containing F1 and V antigens of Y. pestis was administered to human volunteers eliciting antibodies without any serious side effects. These events, although showing progress, suggest that plague will persist in rodent reservoirs mostly in African countries burdened by poverty and civil unrest, causing death when patients fail to receive prompt antimicrobial treatment.

Concepts: Death, Flea, Pneumonic plague, 21st century, Plague, Black Death, Bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis


Mobility and migration patterns of groups and individuals have long been a topic of interest to archaeologists, used for broad explanatory models of cultural change as well as illustrations of historical particularism. The 14th century AD was a tumultuous period of history in Britain, with severely erratic weather patterns, the Great Famine of 1315-1322, the Scottish Wars of Independence, and the Hundred Years' War providing additional migration pressures to the ordinary economic issues drawing individuals to their capital under more stable conditions. East Smithfield Black Death Cemetery (Royal Mint) had a documented use period of only 2 years (AD 1348-1350), providing a precise historical context (∼50 years) for data. Adults (n = 30) from the East Smithfield site were sampled for strontium and oxygen stable isotope analyses of tooth enamel. Five individuals were demonstrated to be statistical outliers through the combined strontium and oxygen isotope data. Potential origins for migrants ranged from London’s surrounding hinterlands to distant portions of northern and western Britain. Historic food sourcing practices for London were found to be an important factor for consideration in a broader than expected (87) Sr/(86) Sr range reflected in a comparison of enamel samples from three London datasets. The pooled dataset demonstrated a high level of consistency between site data, divergent from the geologically predicted range. We argue that this supports the premise that isotope data in human populations must be approached as a complex interaction between behavior and environment and thus should be interpreted cautiously with the aid of alternate lines of evidence. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2012. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Concepts: Late Middle Ages, Population, Medieval demography, Great Famine of 1315–1317, Black Death, Famine, 14th century, Middle Ages


No efficient vaccine against plague is currently available. We previously showed that a genetically attenuated Yersinia pseudotuberculosis producing the Yersinia pestis F1 antigen was an efficient live oral vaccine against pneumonic plague. This candidate vaccine however failed to confer full protection against bubonic plague and did not produce F1 stably.

Concepts: Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, Vaccination, Bacterial diseases, Pneumonic plague, Plague, Black Death, Bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis


Yersinia pestis, the etiologic agent of plague, is a bacterium associated with wild rodents and their fleas. Historically it was responsible for three pandemics: the Plague of Justinian in the 6th century AD, which persisted until the 8th century [1]; the renowned Black Death of the 14th century [2, 3], with recurrent outbreaks until the 18th century [4]; and the most recent 19th century pandemic, in which Y. pestis spread worldwide [5] and became endemic in several regions [6]. The discovery of molecular signatures of Y. pestis in prehistoric Eurasian individuals and two genomes from Southern Siberia suggest that Y. pestis caused some form of disease in humans prior to the first historically documented pandemic [7]. Here, we present six new European Y. pestis genomes spanning the Late Neolithic to the Bronze Age (LNBA; 4,800 to 3,700 calibrated years before present). This time period is characterized by major transformative cultural and social changes that led to cross-European networks of contact and exchange [8, 9]. We show that all known LNBA strains form a single putatively extinct clade in the Y. pestis phylogeny. Interpreting our data within the context of recent ancient human genomic evidence that suggests an increase in human mobility during the LNBA, we propose a possible scenario for the early spread of Y. pestis: the pathogen may have entered Europe from Central Eurasia following an expansion of people from the steppe, persisted within Europe until the mid-Bronze Age, and moved back toward Central Eurasia in parallel with human populations.

Concepts: Bubonic plague, World population, Pandemic, Centuries, Europe, Prehistory, Neolithic, Black Death


Plague, a zoonosis caused by Yersinia pestis, is still found in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Madagascar reports almost one third of the cases worldwide. Y. pestis can be encountered in three very different types of foci: urban, rural, and sylvatic. Flea vector and wild rodent host population dynamics are tightly correlated with modulation of climatic conditions, an association that could be crucial for both the maintenance of foci and human plague epidemics. The black rat Rattus rattus, the main host of Y. pestis in Madagascar, is found to exhibit high resistance to plague in endemic areas, opposing the concept of high mortality rates among rats exposed to the infection. Also, endemic fleas could play an essential role in maintenance of the foci. This review discusses recent advances in the understanding of the role of these factors as well as human behavior in the persistence of plague in Madagascar.

Concepts: Malaria, Africa, Pandemic, Brown rat, Bubonic plague, Black Death, Yersinia pestis, Rat


Epidemics can spread across large regions becoming pandemics by flowing along transportation and social networks. Two network attributes, transitivity (when a node is connected to two other nodes that are also directly connected between them) and centrality (the number and intensity of connections with the other nodes in the network), are widely associated with the dynamics of transmission of pathogens. Here we investigate how network centrality and transitivity influence vulnerability to diseases of human populations by examining one of the most devastating pandemic in human history, the fourteenth century plague pandemic called Black Death. We found that, after controlling for the city spatial location and the disease arrival time, cities with higher values of both centrality and transitivity were more severely affected by the plague. A simulation study indicates that this association was due to central cities with high transitivity undergo more exogenous re-infections. Our study provides an easy method to identify hotspots in epidemic networks. Focusing our effort in those vulnerable nodes may save time and resources by improving our ability of controlling deadly epidemics.

Concepts: Plague, Epidemiology, Pandemics, World population, Pandemic, Infectious disease, Black Death