File photo of a researcher working in a lab. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Hide Caption

Scientists find ancient plague DNA in teeth

a a a a
Share this story

LONDON (AP) -- Scientists say two of the deadliest pandemics in history were caused by strains of the same plague and warn that new versions of the bacteria could spark future outbreaks.

Researchers found tiny bits of DNA in the teeth of two German victims killed by the Justinian plague about 1,500 years ago. With those fragments, they reconstructed the genome of the oldest bacteria known.

They concluded the Justinian plague was caused by a strain of Yersinia pestis, the same pathogen responsible for the Black Death that struck medieval Europe. The study was published online Tuesday in the journal, Lancet Infectious Diseases.

The two plagues packed quite a punch. The Justinian Plague is thought to have wiped out half the globe as it spread across Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. And the Black Death killed about 50 million Europeans in just four years during the 14th century.

"What this shows is that the plague jumped into humans on several different occasions and has gone on a rampage," said Tom Gilbert, a professor at the Natural History Museum of Denmark who wrote an accompanying commentary. "That shows the jump is not that difficult to make and wasn't a wild fluke."

The plague is usually spread to humans by rodents whose fleas carry the bacteria.

"Humans are infringing on rodents' territory, so it's only a matter of time before we get more exposure to them," Gilbert said.

Still, he and other experts doubted a modern plague epidemic would be as devastating.

"Plague is something that will continue to happen but modern-day antibiotics should be able to stop it," said Hendrik Poinar, director of the Ancient DNA Centre at McMaster University in Canada, who led the new research. He said about 200 rodent species carry the plague and could potentially infect other animals or humans.

Poinar warned that if the plague transforms into an airborne version - which can happen if the bacteria reaches the lungs and its droplets are spread by coughing - it would be much harder to snuff out. That type of plague can kill people within 24 hours of being infected.

Poinar said scientists need to sharpen their surveillance of plague in rodent populations to try averting future human infections.

"If we happen to see a massive die-off of rodents somewhere with (the plague), then it would become alarming," he said.

There are several thousand human cases of plague every year, most often in central and Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and parts of the Americas.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Print this article

Comments

Hmm... It looks like you’re not a WCPO Insider. or Subscribe now to contribute!

More Science News
NASA's moon-orbiting robot crashes down
NASA's moon-orbiting robot crashes down

NASA's robotic moon explorer, LADEE, is no more. Flight controllers confirmed early Friday that the moon-orbiting spacecraft crashed into…

Hacker attack? NKU Cyber Defense Team can help
Hacker attack? NKU Cyber Defense Team can help

The students bested teams from nine states--including the University of Louisville--in a recent competition. Organizers described the cyber…

Study: Snack might help avoid fight with spouse
Study: Snack might help avoid fight with spouse

A quick candy bar may stave off more than hunger. It could prevent major fights between husbands and wives, at least if a new study that used…

'Blood moon' a treat for skywatchers
'Blood moon' a treat for skywatchers

A special treat occurred for most of North America Monday night into Tuesday when the moon turned to blood – well, sort of.

Cost of fighting warming 'modest,' says UN panel
Cost of fighting warming 'modest,' says UN panel

The cost of keeping global warming in check is "relatively modest," but only if the world acts quickly to reverse the buildup of…

Spring find you in love? Blame it on oxytocin
Spring find you in love? Blame it on oxytocin

Is there something to the notion that more people actually fall in love in the springtime? Mark Bardgett, the director of the…

Celestial event to bathe Tri-State in 'blood'
Celestial event to bathe Tri-State in 'blood'

A special treat is in store for the Tri-State next week when the moon turns to blood – well, sort of.

Electrical device helps paralyzed men move legs
Electrical device helps paralyzed men move legs

Three years ago, doctors reported that zapping a paralyzed man's spinal cord with electricity allowed him to stand and move his legs. Now…

UK scientists make body parts in lab
UK scientists make body parts in lab

In a north London hospital, scientists are growing noses, ears and blood vessels in the laboratory in a bold attempt to make body parts using…

Odds are dopamine has us hooked on sports bets
Odds are dopamine has us hooked on sports bets

Depending on how your bracket looks--and how much money is on the line--March Madness is either the best or worst of times for sports fans…