Despite its reputation as a scourge of antiquity, Yersinia pestis–the bacterium that causes bubonic plague–still causes thousands of human illnesses every year. In modern times, most of these occur in Africa, and to a lesser extent in Asia, though we have a handful of cases each year in the U.S as well.
When Y. pestis was first confirmed as the cause of bubonic plague during an 1894 outbreak in Hong Kong, most people assumed that we also now knew the cause of the 14th-century Black Death, and the later plague outbreaks that resurfaced periodically. However, there has been lingering resistance to the idea that Y. pestis actually caused the Black Death. I covered the reasoning behind this resistance in a series of posts back in 2008, so I’ll just give the Cliff notes version here. Basically, many of those advocating “not Y. pestis” pointed to differences in the epidemiology of the Black Death compared to modern outbreaks of Y. pestis. Today, people are much less likely to die of plague; the outbreaks aren’t nearly as big; and the pneumonic form (which infects the lungs and is therefore able to spread directly person-to-person) seems too rare to account for the number of cases that occurred during the Black Death. Also, they argue that transmission across Europe was much too fast, given that rodents (typically rats) are the disease vector. Instead of Yersinia, some authors have suggested that the Black Death was instead caused by a hemorrhagic fever virus, or perhaps by an unknown microbe that went extinct sometime in the last 600 years.
More recently, we’ve been able to test these claims, using paleomicrobiology to look for molecular evidence of Y. pestis in skeletons that presumably died of plague. Many of these come from mass graves that have been dated to the time of the Black Death–some also have parish or other town records to attest to the timing of the grave. In most cases, investigators found Y. pestis DNA. In a few cases, they didn’t, which led to controversy and charges of contamination in the positive samples.
However, the tide has turned. In 2010 and 2011, three papers came out which, um, put the nail in the coffin for the Y. pestis naysayers. At the time, the papers got press not necessarily because of what they explained, but because the ancient Y. pestis strains looked fairly ordinary–there was nothing obvious to suggest why, from the bacterial point of view, the Black Death was so deadly. However, I hadn’t had a chance to read these closely until now, and one of the punches never made it into the mainstream media. From the discussion section of this paper, the authors note:
Two of the authors (SW and JM) have previously argued that the epidemiology, virulence, and population dynamics of the Black Death were too different from those factors of modern yersinial plague to have been caused by Y. pestis (13). Given the growing body of evidence implicating this bacterium as responsible for the pandemic, we believe scientific debates should now shift to addressing the genetic basis of the epidemic’s unique characteristics.
The reference cited within is this paper, where the authors cast doubt on another group’s finding of Y. pestis DNA in ancient corpses. So it took them 10 years and probably a dozen or more papers, but two “Black Death doubters” have now come around. Score one for the weight of scientific evidence changing minds.
Schuenemann VJ, Bos K, DeWitte S, Schmedes S, Jamieson J, Mittnik A, Forrest S, Coombes BK, Wood JW, Earn DJ, White W, Krause J, & Poinar HN (2011). Targeted enrichment of ancient pathogens yielding the pPCP1 plasmid of Yersinia pestis from victims of the Black Death. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108 (38) PMID: 21876176
Bos KI et al. A draft genome of Yersinia pestis from victims of the Black Death. Nature, 2011.
Haensch, S et al. Distinct Clones of Yersinia pestis Caused the Black Death. PLoS Pathogens, 2010.
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