Black Death’s Mystery Solved! Scientists Reconstruct Pathogen Genomes from Centuries-Old Plague Victims

Black Death’s Mystery Solved! Scientists Reconstruct Pathogen Genomes from Centuries-Old Plague Victims

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany have come up with key findings that directly link with the plague that ravaged Europe hundreds of years ago. They have been able to successfully reconstruct complete pathogen genomes from victims of the Great Plague of Marseille, which raged from 1720 to 1722. The Great Plague of Marseille is assumed to be the last outbreak of medieval plague in Europe. Black Death, the plague in 14th and 18th centuries was caused by Yersinia pestis, bacteria thought to have killed 30% to 50% of the European population. Millions of people died of the disease in two major outbreaks.

Scientists used teeth from plague pits in Marseille to access tiny fragments of DNA that had been preserved for hundreds of years. Alexander Herbig, computational analyst, said that reconstructing these ancient genomes was not an easy task. "To our surprise, the 18th century plague seems to be a form that is no longer circulating, and it descends directly from the disease that entered Europe during the Black Death, several centuries earlier".

Scientists said that the Marseille was a major hub for European trade, but the plague studied by the Max Planck scientists may actually have been present elsewhere in Europe. Kirsten Bos, a lead author of the publication, said the geographical source of the Great Plague of Marseille has not yet been identified. Scientists assume the Great Plague of Marseille to be the last outbreak of medieval plague in Europe. The findings published online Journal eLife highlights the fact that the disease was hiding somewhere in Europe for several hundred years.

Johannes Krause, director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute, said it is a chilling thought that the plague might have once been hiding right around the corner throughout Europe. The study follows a research published in the journal PLOS ONE earlier this month in which, researchers recovered and analysed ancient DNA from plague victims in Germany. Excavated from two different burial sites in Germany, and their remains spanned more than 300 years.

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