Among the one trillion or so species that share space on our planet, complex relationships have emerged over time. Such relationships, in which two or more species closely interact, are collectively termed symbiosis. Although it’s commonly assumed that symbiotic relationships are mutually beneficial, this example constitutes only one type of symbiosis (known as mutualism). The traditional predator-prey relationship, clearly a one-sided arrangement, is also an example of symbiosis.
The sheer diversity of microbial species has led to the development of many well-characterized relationships with plants and animals. Perhaps the best-known example of mutualism in this context is the process of nitrogen fixation. In this process, various types of bacteria that live in water, soil or root nodules convert atmospheric nitrogen into forms that are readily used by plants. On the other hand, some types of bacteria-plant relationships are parasitic: the bacteria rely on the plant for survival but end up damaging their host. Parasitic relationships can have devastating ecological and economic consequences when they affect food crops.
Human teeth play a key role in our understanding of how organisms evolve. Whenever a possible new member of the hominid family is uncovered, the shape and number of teeth are used to place that individual in the family tree. Teeth also harbor information about pathogens that have plagued humans for millennia. Because bacteria use our bloodstream as a transport system, protected places that can preserve DNA—like the pulp of teeth—are a rich medium for uncovering information about humans and the microbes that infected them.
Teeth have been the choice for identifying the infectious agent behind the Plague of Justinian in the sixth century and the Black Plague in the 14th century. In fact, Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for these plagues, has infected humans as far back as the Neolithic. But what can we learn about the pandemic strain or strains of Y. pestis described in historical records? A team of researchers from Europe and the US, many of whom have been delving into the history of Y. pestis for the last decade, wanted to further investigate the Plague of Justinian. They studied bacterial DNA extracted from human remains found in Western European communal graves that were dated to around 541–750, the period of the historically documented Plague of Justinian. Their investigation examined the bacteria’s diversity and how far it spread during this “First Pandemic” of plague. Continue reading “Delving into the Diversity of The Plague of Justinian”
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