California Science & Technology News

Could the Black Death Strike Again?

A strain of plague which has killed up to 100million people could strike again, scientists warn.

They have linked the Black Death, which killed 50million Europeans in the 1300s, and The Plague of Justinian, which struck 800 years earlier, suggesting they were caused by ‘distinct’ strains of the same pathogen.

Dave Wagner, professor in the Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics at Northern Arizona University warned that it could return in the future.

He said 'We know the bacterium Y. pestis has jumped from rodents into humans throughout history and rodent reservoirs of plague still exist today in many parts of the world.

'If the Justinian plague could erupt in the human population, cause a massive pandemic, and then die out, it suggest it could happen again.'

Tiny samples of the plague bacteria were taken from skeletons belonging to two victims of the Justinian plague who were buried in Bavaria, Germany.

Fragments of DNA were found in their 1,500-year-old teeth and used to recreate the bacteria’s whole genetic code. More...

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Researchers compared it with a database of hundreds of modern plague pathogens, some of which still kill thousands every year. Devastation: The plagues studied killed 100million between them +2

Devastation: The plagues studied killed 100million between them

The study, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, shows the strain responsible for the Justinian outbreak was an evolutionary ‘dead-end’ and distinct from strains involved later in the Black Death and subsequent pandemics.

A third pandemic, which spread from Hong Kong across the globe is also likely a descendant of the Black Death strain and thus much more successful than the one responsible for the Justinian Plague.

Ancient DNA expert Professor Hendrik Poinar said: 'The research is both fascinating and perplexing, it generates new questions which need to be explored, for example why did this pandemic, which killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people die out?'

One possibility is that humans evolved to better cope with the bacteria, lessening its impact as a plague.

Professor Wagner added: 'Another possibility is that changes in the climate became less suitable for the plague bacterium to survive in the wild.

'Fortunately we now have antibiotics that could be used to effectively treat plague, which lessens the chances of another large scale human pandemic.'