My last blog post on the Black Death highlighted research that suggested that the reintroduction of Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of the pandemic, originated in Europe during the 14–18th centuries rather than from Asia, the hypothesized origin. In my post, I wrote about my curiosity regarding what an Asian skeleton positive for Y. pestis from that same time period would reveal about the strain or strains that were circulating. Well, a team of researchers has been exploring the issue of strain circulation and an Asian connection, and recently published what they gleaned from additional historic Y. pestis samples in Cell Host & Microbe.
While scientists using ancient DNA analysis are learning how Yersinia pestis developed over time into the causative agent of three worldwide pandemics, there is still much to learn about the early hours and days of an organism infected with the plague. Y. pestis still infects humans so any insight into disease progression is useful for determining treatment timing and even developing novel treatments to supplement or replace antibiotics. A 2012 study observed how Y. pestis injected into mice spread throughout the body using bioluminescent imaging to track the infection. More recent research reported in PLOS ONE used a more real-world route of infection by introducing an aerosolized Y. pestis to a nonhuman primate model and tracking the transcripts altered during the first 42 hours of infection. Continue reading “Analyzing the Effects of Yersinia pestis Infection on Gene Expression”
In the last six years, researchers have untangled the origins of devastating human plagues, sequenced the genome of a Yersinia pestis strain responsible for the Black Death and explored how long this bacterium has been with humans. However, the information arising from this research begs more questions. How many variations of Y. pestis occurred during the 14–17th centuries, the second pandemic that began with the Black Death? Did these differences reflect the location in which the Y. pestis-positive skeletons were found? What were the geographic source or sources of these plagues? A recent PLOS ONE article examined Y. pestis found in German remains separated by 500km and 300 years to answer to some of these questions. Continue reading “The Black Death: World Traveler or Persistent Homebody?”
Fridays are generally reserved for fun posts to share prior to the weekend. As we all know, fun is relative and to me, the latest news about how long Yersinia pestis has been entwined with human history is intriguing. I enjoy writing about the latest historical finding of Y. pestis even if I do earn a black reputation among my blogging colleagues (pun intended). Therefore, as soon as I saw the Cell article about Y. pestis found in Bronze age human teeth, I knew my blog topic was at hand.
Y. pestis has long been suspected in several plagues that occurred in the last two millennia. Publications in 2011 and 2013 used DNA extracted from teeth of human remains dated to the 14th century Black Death and 6th century Plague of Justinian to confirm Y. pestis was the causative agent in those devastating plagues. These results beg the question: How long has Y. pestis been infecting humans? The phylogenic trees generated from recent studies suggested Y. pestis has been with humans for as little as 2,600 years and as long as and 28,000 years. Equipped with these DNA-based tools, Rasmussen et al. asked if they could find evidence of Y. pestis in older human remains. Continue reading “Yersinia pestis Reveals More Secrets From the Grave”
When discussing human evolution, many people think of bones uncovered in Africa like the skeleton named Lucy or mention that Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans coexisted in Europe. However, our evolution has not ceased in recent years even if the evolutionary changes are not as physically obvious as the difference between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens’ skulls. Any changes in our environment influence the complement of genes we pass on to our children and grandchildren and even if those genes are passed on to the next generation. When it comes to diseases, some deadly infections can have a tremendous influence on the immune genes passed on to descendants, especially by those individuals that survived the disease and had children. However, determining whether any genetic changes are due to disease can be difficult. There is not always a control population for a particular disease where one group was infected and the other not, to identify changes. Luckily for the study published in PNAS, researchers had access to two populations that had experienced similar disease pressure (e.g., the Black Death) and one genetically related population that had not. Continue reading “The Role of the Black Death in Human Evolution”
When I started writing about research on Yersinia pestis and the Black Death, I was amazed at the ability to recover 14th century bacterial DNA from human remains, show Y. pestis was the caustive agent of the Black Death and then sequence the strain to compare to modern Y. pestis strains. The publications I read always mentioned the three waves of pandemics that devastated human populations in the introduction, and the Black Death was not the oldest one. The putative first pandemic was the Plague of Justinian in the 6th century, named after the Byzantine emperor. Like with the Black Death, there is debate about whether Y. pestis is the causative agent of the Plague of Justinian. The research published in PLOS Pathogens built on earlier work to isolate and genotype the suspected Y. pestis causative agent from human remains in 6th century graves, but this time with more stringent protocols enacted to answer critics who questioned the authenticity of earlier results. Continue reading “Ancient Samples Confirm the Cause of the 6th Century Plague Pandemic”
After writing my review of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA article “Targeted enrichment of ancient pathogens yielding the pPCP1 plasmid of Yersinia pestis from victims of the Black Death”, I vaguely wondered if the authors could have sequenced more than a single 10kb plasmid. If the single-copy chromosomal DNA was too scarce, maybe one of the other Yersina pestis plasmids that may exist at a higher copy number (e.g., pMT1) might be sequenced. Continue reading “Sequencing the Black Death is a Window to the Past”
Last year, I reviewed a PLoS Pathogens paper that found European Black Plague victims from the mid 14th century were infected with more than one clone of Yersinia pestis. While the Y. pestis-specific sequences amplified from several skeletal samples from various countries were evidence of the bacterium as the etiological agent, questions still remained about the virulence of the outbreak. What allowed that ancient strain of Y. pestis to cause such widespread death? Another group of researchers decided to further analyze the causative agent of the Black Plague by enriching for and sequencing one of the extrachromasomal plasmids present in the bacterial genome: the 9.6kb virulence-associated pPCP1 plasmid. Continue reading “Dance Macabre: Will 14th Century Remains Reveal the Pandemic Secrets of the Black Death?”
I was confident I knew a few things about the bubonic plague: It was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which was transmitted to humans by fleas hitching a ride on the back of traveling rats. It spread rapidly and devastated populations around the globe, and because cats, a natural predator of scurrying rodents, had been killed, rats proliferated along with their deadly, infectious cargo. However, until I read a recent PLoS ONE article, I did not realize there was still debate about whether Yersinia pestis was the infectious agent for Black Death, the disease that ravaged 14th century Europe and killed one third of its population. Continue reading “What Caused the Black Death?”