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Concept: Plague


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


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


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, Head louse, Pandemic, Plague, World population, Bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, Black Death


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


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, Bacterial diseases, Pneumonic plague, Plague, Bacteria, Black Death, Bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis


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 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


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


Ancient DNA analysis has revealed an involvement of the bacterial pathogen Yersinia pestis in several historical pandemics, including the second plague pandemic (Europe, mid-14(th) century Black Death until the mid-18(th) century AD). Here we present reconstructed Y. pestis genomes from plague victims of the Black Death and two subsequent historical outbreaks spanning Europe and its vicinity, namely Barcelona, Spain (1300-1420 cal AD), Bolgar City, Russia (1362-1400 AD), and Ellwangen, Germany (1485-1627 cal AD). Our results provide support for (1) a single entry of Y. pestis in Europe during the Black Death, (2) a wave of plague that traveled toward Asia to later become the source population for contemporary worldwide epidemics, and (3) the presence of an historical European plague focus involved in post-Black Death outbreaks that is now likely extinct.

Concepts: Third Pandemic, Spain, Italy, Plague, Yersinia pestis, World population, Pandemic, Black Death


During a pneumonic plague outbreak in Moramanga, Madagascar, we identified 4 confirmed, 1 presumptive, and 9 suspected plague case-patients. Human-to-human transmission among close contacts was high (reproductive number 1.44) and the case fatality rate was 71%. Phylogenetic analysis showed that the Yersinia pestis isolates belonged to group q3, different from the previous outbreak.

Concepts: Computational phylogenetics, Yersinia, Bacterial diseases, Black Death, Plague, Bubonic plague, Pneumonic plague, Yersinia pestis