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A draft genome of Yersinia pestis from victims of the Black Death

This paper reports the first complete genome of the causitive agent behind the Black Death, Yersinia pestis. Notably it also shows that modern Yersinia pestis strains have stem from these medieval lineages and suggest that factors other than bacterial phenotype may have played a large role in the increased virulance of the Black Death strain.

Oct 12, 2011

Authors: K. Bos, V. Schuenemann, G.B. Golding, H. Burbano, N. Waglechner, B. Coombes, J. McPhee, S. DeWitte, M. Meyer, S. Schmedes, J. Wood, D. Earn, D.A. Herring, P. Bauer, H. Poinar, J. Krause
Nature, Vol 478, pp 506-510. October 2011. DOI: 10.1038/nature10549


Technological advances in DNA recovery and sequencing have drastically expanded the scope of genetic analyses of ancient specimens to the extent that full genomic investigations are now feasible and are quickly becoming standard1. This trend has important implications for infectious disease research because genomic data from ancient microbes may help to elucidate mechanisms of pathogen evolution and adaptation for emerging and re-emerging infections. Here we report a reconstructed ancient genome of Yersinia pestis at 30-fold average coverage from Black Death victims securely dated to episodes of pestilence-associated mortality in London, England, 1348–1350. Genetic architecture and phylogenetic analysis indicate that the ancient organism is ancestral to most extant strains and sits very close to the ancestral node of all Y. pestis commonly associated with human infection. Temporal estimates suggest that the Black Death of 1347–1351 was the main historical event responsible for the introduction and widespread dissemination of the ancestor to all currently circulating Y. pestis strains pathogenic to humans, and further indicates that contemporary Y. pestis epidemics have their origins in the medieval era. Comparisons against modern genomes reveal no unique derived positions in the medieval organism, indicating that the perceived increased virulence of the disease during the Black Death may not have been due to bacterial phenotype. These findings support the notion that factors other than microbial genetics, such as environment, vector dynamics and host susceptibility, should be at the forefront of epidemiological discussions regarding emerging Y. pestis infections.

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