Cause Of Black Death Established from Genome Sequencing: It Was The Bubonic Plague

The Black Death bacteria may be gone forever! Scientists have identified the cause of the infamous Black Death bacteria with almost 100% confidence. While it was widely believed that the Black Death was caused by the plague bacteria both inside and outside the medical community, it wasn’t an established fact. Now it is, thanks to modern genetics!

Black Death

The Black Death wiped out an estimated one-third of Europe during the 14th century. Fields turned into mass graves and it was suggested that not one household was spared some effect of the Black Death or the other.

The Dreaded Bacterium

The Black Death was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, one which is responsible for current plague outbreaks, said Hendrik Poinar, an anthropologist at McMaster University in Ontario. No one can doubt now that bubonic plague was the cause of the horrible epidemic.

The Y.Pestis bacterium

It was Hendrik Poinar who did pioneering work in developing a technique for extracting the DNA from the bones of the Black Death victims and then analysing the genome structure. He got definitive signatures of the Y.pestis bacteria. Samples from death bodies before the Black Death did not contain any strain of Y.pestis, while those of the victims did. This deadly Y.pestis strain, however, no longer exists and Y.pestis has mutated into a less harmful form. It still causes bubonic plague outbreaks, but these are nowhere as deadly as the medieval European version. In other words, Black Death bacterium is extinct.

Some scientists had suggested a strain of the Ebola virus, but this settles the issue. Ebola DNA was not found in the bones.

This is a fascinating story of modern genetics reconstructing history and also giving valuable lessons on disease control in the future.

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Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.