Research On Black Death Plague: 18th Century European Plague Being Studied Using DNA From Victims’ Teeth

Alap Naik Desai - Author

Jan. 24 2016, Updated 11:08 a.m. ET

Researchers studying the Black Death plague that ravaged Europe have collected DNA samples from teeth of the victims who were thrown in plague pits. Scientists hope the study could offer newer insights into the deadly epidemic that continued to kill people and spread social unrest for hundreds of years more than initially believed.

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The Black Death, or Great Plague, is undoubtedly one of the deadliest and devastating epidemics mankind has faced. Within just five years of its emergence, the pandemic wiped out 30 to 50 percent of the European population. The plague did not stop there. The epidemic continued to emerge at differing intervals throughout Europe, which ensured the mortality rate remained high. Additionally, the plague is even attributed to spreading civil and social unrest before it was brought under control and snuffed out by modern medicine.

Researchers strongly believe that the plague was present in Europe for more than three centuries. An international team of scientists, led by members of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, has been researching the European Black Plague by reconstructing the genomic sequence of the disease. The team reports successful reconstruction of complete pathogen genomes from victims of the Great Plague of Marseille (1720-1722), reportedPhys. The last great outbreak of the Black Plague is believed to have taken place in Marseille during medieval times in Europe.

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Interestingly, while the plague continues to emerge in developing parts of the world, it has been completely wiped out in Europe. The complete disappearance of the once omnipresent threat of the deadly disease has left many questions unanswered. The true history of the dreaded plague continues to evade scientists and researching the same could offer new insights and abilities to tackle the menace around the world.

Using teeth of many victims of the Black Plague, who were dropped in plague pits in Marseille, researchers have been able to access and extract minuscule fragments of DNA that have been preserved for centuries. Speaking about the process, computational analyst Alexander Herbig had this to say.

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“We faced a significant challenge in reconstructing these ancient genomes. 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.”

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What this essentially means is that the Black Plague is quite different, even genetically, to the modern versions of plague. This has led the researchers to believe they have identified an extinct form of the disease. Though the variant of the plague is long gone, its analysis could reveal its history and how it went extinct, allowing researchers to suggest techniques that might help in allowing modern medicine to wipe out newer variants of the plague that continue to wreak havoc during modern times.

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It is commonly believed that the Black Plague was transmitted by rats infested with plague-carrying fleas. The research theorizes that the rats and the plague might have been distributed to various regions in Europe aboard merchant ships that frequented many ports. Unfortunately, scientists haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact origin of the plague, but managed to confirm that the last big outbreak that happened in Marseille had its roots in the Medieval Black Plague. A remnant of the Black Death, the pandemic wiped out almost half of Europe’s population.

Using genome sequencing, researchers have been successful in mapping several extinct strains of the disease. Such information is important to understand how the disease evolved and why it killed so many people, reportedCapital Wired.

The researchers of the Black Plague, or Great Death, stated that though merchant ships are being blamed for bringing the pandemic to Europe, further investigation could reveal that the disease may have been lurking quite closer to the outbreak point for quite some time, before emerging. Johannes Krause, director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the MPI in Jena is confident that studying the disease could help identify the mysterious host species, its range and the reason for its disappearance.

[Photo by DEA/G. Dagli Orti/Getty Images]


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