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The Black Death Revealed
October 12, 2011 12:26 PM   Subscribe

DNA from the teeth of medival corpses confirm that the Black Death was caused by Yersinia pestis.

Although long suspected to be the cause, there were alternate theories. The Black Death is estimated to have killed a third of Europe population, and Yersina pestis is still killing today.
posted by Bulgaroktonos (38 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
I like this kind of detective work, putting the other theories to rest. Still, I wonder if none of these researchers have read any science fiction.
posted by OmieWise at 12:31 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Of course, no discussion of The Black Death would be complete without a link to the t-shirt.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:31 PM on October 12, 2011 [13 favorites]


Be sure not to play with it, or at least test yourself for hemochromatosis first.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:33 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well.

From what I recall during my graduate studies, this may not be true. That article isn't very thorough, so it might be worth digging up the peer reviewed study before leaping to the same conclusions that the reporter did.

As I understand it, the Black Death came in waves, each with slightly different characteristics. It also leaped across Europe at a staggering pace. Those suggest that it was not bacterial, and that it may have mutated, or been the result of more than one agent.

I know that there was evidence of Bubonic Plague in some of the corpses in the mass graves, but that wouldn't have been uncommon at the time, and does not rule out other factors as well.


Yersinia pestis doesn't sound like it accounts for everything that we know about the Black Death. I'm not sure how you get from "we isolated Yersinia pestis in the teeth of skeletons from that period" to "Yersinia pestis" caused the Black death.
Unless all of the teeth from victims contained it, but the article is not clear on how many teeth they took samples from.
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:33 PM on October 12, 2011 [11 favorites]


ZenMasterThis: "Of course, no discussion of The Black Death would be complete without a link to the t-shirt."

I used to have that! I miss that shirt.
posted by brundlefly at 12:33 PM on October 12, 2011


DNA from the teeth of medival corpses...

Stop right there. Added to favorites.

posted by avoision at 12:38 PM on October 12, 2011 [8 favorites]


Remember people: Wash your hands before handling prairie dogs or going to war in southeast Asia!
posted by jimmythefish at 12:39 PM on October 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


Anyway, to answer my own questions, here's a direct link to the article:
A draft genome of Yersinia pestis from victims of the Black Death

It's miraculously not pay walled, and is relatively human-readable.
Here's the abstract:

A draft genome of Yersinia pestis from victims of the Black Death

Kirsten I. Bos,
Verena J. Schuenemann,
G. Brian Golding,
Hernán A. Burbano,
Nicholas Waglechner,
Brian K. Coombes,
Joseph B. McPhee,
Sharon N. DeWitte,
Matthias Meyer,
Sarah Schmedes,
James Wood,
David J. D. Earn,
D. Ann Herring,
Peter Bauer,
Hendrik N. Poinar
& Johannes Krause

Affiliations
Contributions
Corresponding authors

Nature
(2011)
doi:10.1038/nature10549

Received
25 July 2011
Accepted
09 September 2011
Published online
12 October 2011

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Technological advances in DNA recovery and sequencing have drastically expanded the scope of genetic analyses of ancient specimens to the extent that full genomic investigations are now feasible and are quickly becoming standard1. This trend has important implications for infectious disease research because genomic data from ancient microbes may help to elucidate mechanisms of pathogen evolution and adaptation for emerging and re-emerging infections. Here we report a reconstructed ancient genome of Yersinia pestis at 30-fold average coverage from Black Death victims securely dated to episodes of pestilence-associated mortality in London, England, 1348–1350. Genetic architecture and phylogenetic analysis indicate that the ancient organism is ancestral to most extant strains and sits very close to the ancestral node of all Y. pestis commonly associated with human infection. Temporal estimates suggest that the Black Death of 1347–1351 was the main historical event responsible for the introduction and widespread dissemination of the ancestor to all currently circulating Y. pestis strains pathogenic to humans, and further indicates that contemporary Y. pestis epidemics have their origins in the medieval era. Comparisons against modern genomes reveal no unique derived positions in the medieval organism, indicating that the perceived increased virulence of the disease during the Black Death may not have been due to bacterial phenotype. These findings support the notion that factors other than microbial genetics, such as environment, vector dynamics and host susceptibility, should be at the forefront of epidemiological discussions regarding emerging Y. pestis infections.
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:39 PM on October 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


gah! after
posted by jimmythefish at 12:40 PM on October 12, 2011


DNA from the teeth of medival corpses

Damn it, first forklorists, then this. I cannot get a FPP typo free this week.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:40 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


So, as I read that, the last couple sentences address my concern, and are the crux of their argument. There are still a lot of questions about the pervasiveness and virulence of the Black Death, but this work is suggesting that other factors (not mutation) may have encouraged the transmission of Yersinia pestis.

I don't think that it necessarily rules out the possibility that there was more than one virus/disease/microbe/whatever helping to wipe people out, although it does seem to show that Yersinia pestis was definitely common.

Anyway someone correct me if I'm wrong. Not my field. Interesting though. Thanks for the post!
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:45 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Stagger Lee: “Yersinia pestis doesn't sound like it accounts for everything that we know about the Black Death.”

This is the one bit you've said that I really disagree with, I think, Stagger Lee. Yersinia Pestis seems to me to sound closer to the contemporary accounts than any other alternative theory; it has a form that causes (and is largely transmitted via) large buboes; it has a pneumonic form, which was clearly present in later aftermaths of the plague; and it seems to have a similar gestation period. The only piece that doesn't fit in the puzzle is the fact that Yersinia Pestis doesn't seem quite as commonly deadly as the plague did; but there are some explanations one could offer for that (bad hygeine, lack of knowledge about the disease, possible alternate strains, etc).
posted by koeselitz at 12:58 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


More deadly strains may have burned themselves out as well, especially as quarantines set in.
posted by maryr at 1:01 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


so it might be worth digging up the peer reviewed study

I see what you did there

posted by zippy at 1:01 PM on October 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


The only piece that doesn't fit in the puzzle is the fact that Yersinia Pestis doesn't seem quite as commonly deadly as the plague did; but there are some explanations one could offer for that (bad hygeine, lack of knowledge about the disease, possible alternate strains, etc).

Yeah, the more I look at that article the more I think that you're right.
What the authors are suggesting seems to be that those other factors explain the elevated mortality rates, among other things.

I don't find that medieval research is ever very satisfying, because there just isn't much information to work from. But reading the article, this might be the closest we've come to an explanation.

Honestly it sounds more like their goal here is to dispute suggestions that mutations of Yersinia Pestis had caused those. That would then allow for other people to examine the question of what exactly was responsible.

Doesn't make for a very good sound byte I guess.
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:03 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Y Pestis could have been a contributing cause rather than the actual plague agent. For example, it could have acted as a helper agent for a (much faster spreading and deadly yet harmless alone) airborne virus. But if it took this long to get the genome, I don't want to wait around for verification of Y Pestis' deadliness.
posted by Slackermagee at 1:13 PM on October 12, 2011


Fascinating. Thanks for digging up the abstract and posting it, Stagger Lee.
posted by immlass at 1:14 PM on October 12, 2011


We survived the black death and all we got was lousy tee shirts (and the renaisance, enlightenment, industrial, modern and post-modern ages, but who's counting).
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:19 PM on October 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Henny Youngman has also been killing it since 1350.
posted by GuyZero at 1:29 PM on October 12, 2011


Scumbag Yersinia pestis.
posted by punkfloyd at 1:36 PM on October 12, 2011


No, yer sinia pestis!
posted by tumid dahlia at 1:46 PM on October 12, 2011


Bring out your dead.
posted by bukvich at 1:55 PM on October 12, 2011


Yersinia Pestis is the name of the female lead singer of my new Goth Metal band.
posted by Decani at 1:56 PM on October 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


I used to have that!
posted by brundlefly


The plague, or the shirt?
posted by George Clooney at 1:58 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Henny Youngman has also been killing it since 1350.

Take my wife, please! Seriously!
posted by hal9k at 2:02 PM on October 12, 2011


> no discussion of The Black Death would be complete without a link to the t-shirt

If I ever get an invite to that Poe castle party that's totally what I'm wearing.
posted by jfuller at 2:03 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why haven't the police arrested this Yersinia Pestis? Once again, these immigrants can do what they want because of so-called political correctness.
posted by panboi at 2:18 PM on October 12, 2011


This is not the first time that Y. pestis has been identified as the Plague bacillus. A DNA examination of victims of the 1720 Marseille outbreak showed the same bug. (IIRC, there have been at least two other sites that have preliminary findings of Y. pestis, but neither have been as rigorously studied as Marseille and East Smithfield.
One reason that bubonic plague is not as deadly today might be that human beings have developed some resistance to it.
posted by CCBC at 2:46 PM on October 12, 2011


"I'll bet your lymph nodes are as big as cats!"
posted by vibrotronica at 4:12 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


> no discussion of The Black Death would be complete without a link to the t-shirt

If I ever get an invite to that Poe castle party that's totally what I'm wearing.


Silly, you don't bring a shirt to that party, you bring a masque!
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:48 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


no discussion of The Black Death would be complete without a link to the t-shirt

Don't forget the plushie!
posted by nicebookrack at 5:00 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


The only piece that doesn't fit in the puzzle is the fact that Yersinia Pestis doesn't seem quite as commonly deadly as the plague did

Actually this is not uncommon with medieval diseases especially. The interesting thing about plague was the mortality rates of the epidemics actually got worse over time - one of the last epidemics in the 1600s (the one defoe wrote about in diary of a plague year) was actually one of the worst.

However, more generally often the earlier epidemics have much higher mortality rates. Syphylis is a great example of this. The symptoms of when it was "the great pox" make what you get today seem very watered down indeed. It killed people originally - and not after years but during stage 2.

Anybody interested in this stuff should absolutely listen to this cracking Yale course, Epidemics in Western Society since 1600, it's a history subject and it's fascinating. I am learning a lot.
posted by smoke at 5:18 PM on October 12, 2011 [13 favorites]


I don't find that medieval research is ever very satisfying

A lot of it has been superseded by the scientific method, to be sure.
posted by dhartung at 5:42 PM on October 12, 2011


Yersinia Pestis doesn't seem quite as commonly deadly as the plague did

Evolutionary pressure tends to reduce the virulence of diseases. If you kill 30% of your food in just a couple years, you kind of die out soon.
posted by DU at 6:30 PM on October 12, 2011


I want the plush! It's adorable!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 6:38 PM on October 12, 2011


Ooh! I have a different Black Plague Tour Shirt (alas, there is no picture online, but it says "Celebrating 666 Years of the Black Plague" and features two rats drinking martinis in front of a crumbling cityscape, with places and dates on the back), but now I need that one too!
posted by Because at 8:00 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm getting better
posted by flabdablet at 2:29 AM on October 13, 2011


Are rats still considered important for the spread of yersinia pestis? One of the weird things about the Black Death is that it hit Iceland hard, which at the time was rat-free.
posted by Kattullus at 6:05 AM on October 13, 2011


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