Magazine article Science News

Plague Bug Wasn't All That Fierce: DNA Analysis Suggests Living Conditions Fed Black Death

Magazine article Science News

Plague Bug Wasn't All That Fierce: DNA Analysis Suggests Living Conditions Fed Black Death

Article excerpt

Using methods that seem inspired by Frankenstein and Jurassic Park, scientists have analyzed the DNA of the ancient microbe responsible for the Black Death, the plague that killed half of Europe's population between 1347 and 1351.

An international team plucked bits of the bacterium Yersinia pestis from the teeth of four plague victims whose skeletons were excavated from London's East Smithfield cemetery in the 1980s. DNA analysis of those samples revealed that the medieval microbe has nearly the same genetic code as modern strains of the bacterium. The scientists found no evidence that genetic mutations helped the 14th century strain of Y. pestis notch such a massive death toll.

"As to why this killed so many people across Europe in 1348, there is no particular smoking gun," says geneticist Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, a member of the international team of anthropologists and evolutionary geneticists who published their findings October 27 in Nature.

Instead, a variety of nongenetic factors that are difficult to control probably helped the infectious disease spread and made it more lethal. "The climate was beginning to dip," says Poinar. "It got very cold, very wet, very quickly."

More rain meant less food for people who were already poorly nourished. Crowded cities also played host to millions of rats, which provided the fleas that carry Y. …

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