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Concept: Plague of Justinian


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


Plague, a deadly zoonose caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, has been firmly documented in 39 historical burial sites in Eurasia that date from the Bronze Age to the two historical pandemics spanning from the 6(th) to the 18th century. Paleomicrobiological data, including gene and spacer sequences, whole genome sequences and proteins data confirmed that two historical pandemics swept over Europe from probable Asian sources and possible two-way ticket journeys back from Europe to Asia. These investigations made it possible to address questions regarding the potential sources and routes of transmission by completing the standard rodent and rodent-flea scheme. This suggested that plague was transmissible by human ectoparasites such as lice, and that Y. pestis was able to persist for months in the soil, which is a source of reinfection for burrowing mammals. The analyses of seven complete genome sequences from the Bronze Age indicated that Y. pestis was probably not an ectoparasite-borne pathogen in these populations. Further analyses of 14 genomes indicated that the Justinian pandemic strains may have formed a clade distinct from the one responsible for the second pandemic, spanning in the Y. pestis branch 1 which also comprises of the third pandemic strains. Further paleomicrobiology studies must tightly connect with historical and anthropological studies in order to resolve questions regarding the actual sources of plague in ancient populations, alternative routes of transmission and resistance traits. Answering these questions will broaden our concepts on plague epidemiology to face the actuality of this deadly infection in epidemic countries.

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


Yersinia pestis is a highly virulent human pathogen and is the causative agent of bubonic plague. Spread through the bite of infected fleas, plague epidemics have marked important events in history, including the Justinian plague (6th century), the Black Death (14th century) which decimated nearly one quarter of the European population, and more recently the Orientalis plague (1894). To date, deaths are still being reported and, without treatment, the disease kills most people within 4 days. One of the thioesterases from Y. pestis, TesB, is a broad-range acyl-CoA thioesterase and is highly conserved within prokaryotes and throughout evolution, sharing sequence similarity with the HIV Nef binding protein ACOT8. Here the expression, purification, crystallization and diffraction of TesB are reported. TesB has been recombinantly expressed and crystallized using the vapour-diffusion hanging-drop technique at pH 7.0 and 290 K. After optimization, crystals diffracted to 2.0 Å resolution at the Australian Synchrotron and belong to the space group P12(1)1 (a = 73.55, b = 170.82, c = 101.98 Å), with eight molecules likely to be present in the asymmetric unit.

Concepts: Infectious disease, Yersinia pestis, Bubonic plague, Black Death, Plague, Pneumonic plague, Third Pandemic, Plague of Justinian