Study Probes Origins of 2 Ancient, Deadly Plagues01/28/14
TUESDAY, Jan. 28, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Different strains of
the same plague bacterium probably caused two of the most
devastating disease outbreaks in human history, according to a new
The Justinian plague killed between 30 million and 50 million
people -- about half the world's population -- in the sixth century
as it raged across Europe, Asia, North Africa and the Middle East,
according to the study, which was published online Jan. 27 in the
The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
The Black Death struck about 800 years later, and killed 50
million people in Europe between the years 1347 and 1351 alone.
But while the strain of
Yersinia pestisthat caused the Justinian plague died out on
its own, the strain that caused the Black Death has survived, the
They said their findings could lead to a better understanding of
modern infectious diseases, including a form of the plague that
kills thousands of people a year.
The researchers collected DNA fragments of the Justinian
Y. pestisstrain from the teeth of two victims who were
buried in Germany. They compared this DNA to the genetic material
of more than 100 modern strains.
The results showed that the Justinian strain was an evolutionary
"dead end" and distinct from strains involved in the Black Death
and other later plague pandemics, according to the study.
"The research is both fascinating and perplexing," said Hendrik Poinar, director of the Ancient DNA Center at McMaster University in Canada.
"It generates new questions that need to be explored. For example, why did this pandemic, which killed somewhere between 50 million and 100 million people, die out?" Poinar, an investigator at the university's Institute for Infectious Disease Research, said in a university news release.
Another researcher said the findings suggest that a new strain
of plague could appear again.
"We know the bacterium Y. pestishas jumped from rodents into humans throughout history, and rodent reservoirs of plague still exist today in many parts of the world," Dave Wagner, an associate professor at the Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics at Northern Arizona University, said in the news release. "If the Justinian plague could erupt in the human population, cause a massive pandemic and then die out, it could happen again."
"Fortunately we now have antibiotics that could be used to effectively treat plague, which lessens the chances of another large-scale human pandemic," Wagner said.
The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
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