Modern plague has origins in Black Death, scientists say
Scientists found bacterial DNA in teeth from medieval skulls like this one, from the Museum of London.
October 12th, 2011
01:00 PM ET

Modern plague has origins in Black Death, scientists say

As the rains raged on in 1340s Europe, most of the crops rotted, leading to food shortages in a colder environment. Amidst the malnourished population, rodents, fleas and perhaps even lice were spreading a disease that had most likely never before infected humankind, and would wipe out up to half of Europe within five years.

This is the vision of the Black Death that scientists put forth in a new study in the journal Nature. For the first time ever, they have reconstructed the genome of an ancient disease based on skeletal remains.

They found out that the medieval plague is not so genetically different from its modern descendant, a disease that exists today in certain parts of the world. They are both caused by variations of the bacteria strain Yersinia pestis but the kind they discovered in the medieval remains appears to no longer exist.

"They’re almost identical," said the study's senior author Johannes Krause of the University of Tübingen, Germany, at a press teleconference Tuesday. "Even a mother and a child show more [genetic] differences than the ancient Black Death strain and the modern plague strain."

Researchers examined skeletons from East Smithfield  Cemetery in London, where approximately 2,500 Black Death victims were buried in mass graves.

They looked at the inner pulp chamber of teeth of individuals buried at this site. That’s where there remains, even after hundreds of years, a dark black powdery material composed of dried blood and nerves. This is a gold mine for DNA excavators.

The next step is separating the DNA of the disease from human DNA, other bacterial DNA and whatever else might be in there from the soil. They then used the modern version of the plague bacteria strain, Yersinia pestis, to look for its ancestor.

They found the ancient Black Death strain in three individuals and a close variation in a fourth skull. It's expected that a pathogen will undergo mutations during an outbreak, Krause said.

Researchers published their initial proof of concept in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in August. This new study shows the nearly complete genetic reconstruction of the Black Death.

The new evidence suggests that the Black Death was the first time plague had infected humans. That would mean Plague of Justinian in 541 A.D. may have been an entirely different pathogen. Alternatively, it could have been caused by an extinct strain of Yersinia pestis.

The Black Death may have come from China and spread along the Silk Road to the ports of Italy and France, where it traveled throughout continental Europe. Most of the victims were poor, since many wealthy people fled to country homes and shielded themselves from the disease.

People at that time had no idea what this disease was or how to treat it. But in later outbreaks, cultural adaptations helped lower virulence, Krause said.

"They had developed quarantine, they had developed some kind of first aid and how to treat patients with the symptoms," he said.

Today, there are about 2,000 cases per year, worldwide, on average, of the modern version of the plague. Rats and rat fleas, like in medieval times, seem to spread it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the World Health Organization has called it a "reemerging infectious disease.”

Modern antibiotics can treat the plague today, and probably would have effectively controlled the outbreak of the Black Death, according to scientists. Unfortunately for millions of Europeans, tetracycline wasn’t invented until 1952.

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soundoff (96 Responses)
  1. BorisMKV

    Whoa...That skull must be one of Letterman's relatives. Talk about tooth gap!

    October 12, 2011 at 14:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kevin

      See, I was thinking Michael Strahan...

      October 12, 2011 at 14:34 | Report abuse |
  2. Craig Greenwood

    4/5 doctors recommend against getting the plague.

    October 12, 2011 at 14:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • jlv

      Hey a plagues gotta eat.

      October 12, 2011 at 15:15 | Report abuse |
  3. floatingpickles

    What a great idea...lets reconstruct the deadliest virus in history that at one point killed over half of the world's population...Brilliant.

    October 12, 2011 at 14:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • sonas76

      Reconstruct it? This strain of plagie still exists...in the article it pretty plainly states that people still get it. It's just treatable now.

      October 12, 2011 at 14:17 | Report abuse |
    • Levi

      Um... half the world? You mean half of Europe? Reconstruct?? It's been here the whole time. Brilliant.

      October 12, 2011 at 14:19 | Report abuse |
    • chris

      They are just extracting the DNA. Didn't say they were making a live strain.

      October 12, 2011 at 14:22 | Report abuse |
    • jim

      It also pretty plainly explained that yersinia pestis isn't a virus, it's a bacteria. There's a world of difference between the two...and try to leave behind what you learned from movies like Outbreak...sequencing the genome of a bacteria is not the same as "reconstructing" a single cell organism. Finally, if you are REALLY afraid of the plague, do not visit the American Southwest, where the bacteria is endemic in local populations of small mammals and feral cats.

      October 12, 2011 at 14:31 | Report abuse |
    • Nick

      Actually, the CDC has active strains of the plague and other hybrid diseases in research labs. I know there is on such lab in VA outside of DC.....

      October 12, 2011 at 14:33 | Report abuse |
    • SPW

      You're a bright one, aren't you?

      Probably read the headline and decided to post without actually reading the article.

      October 12, 2011 at 14:39 | Report abuse |
    • urquan

      Given your predisposition to judge people as "conservative" or "liberal", you must be an American.

      October 12, 2011 at 14:41 | Report abuse |
    • A

      A few years ago they had to shut down one of the entrances to my work building because a colony of prairie dogs were being wiped out by the same strain of plague you claim they are "reconstructing", which really they were just mapping the genome of it. A mapped genome can't infect you. Plague already existed.

      The main point of this study, the exciting point, is it pretty much puts to rest speculation that the Black Death was caused by something other than a strain of Yersinia pestis. Yea science!

      October 12, 2011 at 14:42 | Report abuse |
    • Levi

      @urquan – you're surpised? This is CNN US edition. Click on international at the top if you have an issue with Americans.

      October 12, 2011 at 14:44 | Report abuse |
    • elandau

      Hello, just to clarify: The scientists have reconstructed the genome of the Black Death, they have not actually synthesized the bacterial strain. Secondly it is not a virus, but a bacterial strain.

      Thanks for reading!

      Elizabeth Landau,

      October 12, 2011 at 14:49 | Report abuse |
    • Pat

      Reverse-engineering ancient pathogens? There's an App for that !

      AND, a long-term contract vehicle with the pHeds. They pay top rates for top work.

      October 12, 2011 at 14:54 | Report abuse |
    • JoePub

      What could possibly go wrong?

      October 12, 2011 at 14:58 | Report abuse |
    • Martin

      The plague is caused by bacteria, not by a virus!!! And they haven't reconstructed it, they have isolated it and found it to be essentially the same as bacteria causing about 2,000 cases of plague per year in modern times. Can't you read?

      October 12, 2011 at 14:59 | Report abuse |
    • One7777777

      Hey 'AL'

      90% of the people in this country profess a belief in God. Kind of odd that you have to bash people who believe in God and His Word when this person posted nothing related to Christianity. But of course, God and His Son did tell us to watch for people like you ...as a sign of the times.

      October 12, 2011 at 15:10 | Report abuse |
    • Stop Lying

      I'm not sure where you got your numbers, but "90% of the people in this country profess a belief in God" is an outright lie. Either you're purposely lying, or you're ignorant of facts.

      October 12, 2011 at 15:24 | Report abuse |
    • John

      That's cause AL is by definition being a bigot.

      October 12, 2011 at 15:31 | Report abuse |
    • A.Wolf

      Europe =/= world
      deadliest virus in history =/= bubonic plague

      You probably don't remember smallpox, which would wipe out 90% of victims in communities.

      October 12, 2011 at 15:42 | Report abuse |
    • Lyn

      Plague (Yersinia pestis) is a bacterium, not a virus! This means it would be susceptible to hopefully a number of antibiotics.

      October 12, 2011 at 15:44 | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      sonas76 – People do not get the original black death. Maybe it would be something they could treat now but it's not the same at least make the distinction.

      October 12, 2011 at 15:45 | Report abuse |
    • mikeb

      It's not a virus, it's a bacteria. There's a difference. Bacteria can be treated with antibiotics.

      October 12, 2011 at 15:45 | Report abuse |
    • jmp38

      What could possibly go wrong?

      October 12, 2011 at 15:45 | Report abuse |
    • Ceased to be amazed

      Well it's obvious that you aren't too brilliant. That's for sure.

      October 12, 2011 at 17:26 | Report abuse |
    • E

      Here is a great idea. Read the friggin article!! They are not reconstructing a live strain. It says that it is also curable with antibiotics. You fail at basic reading.

      October 12, 2011 at 17:50 | Report abuse |
    • Brian

      @floatingpickles It's hard to know where begin with the problems in your post.

      1) It's not a virus. It's a bacterium.
      2) Modern antibiotics are quite effective against this
      3) The research showed that the difference between the modern strain and the medieval strain is almost nil, which means that they are not coming up with anything that we don't already have as a threat, but are simply demonstrating the lack of change in the genome
      4) Numerous other people had pointed these things out already, as had the article. Apparently, reading is not high on your agenda, so should you expect anyone to take your comment seriously?

      October 12, 2011 at 17:55 | Report abuse |
    • debillo

      That's exactly what I was thinking. A little too Jurassic Park for me. We all know how that turned out on the screen.

      October 12, 2011 at 17:58 | Report abuse |
  4. dust

    Even the british skeletons have bad teeth.

    October 12, 2011 at 14:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • BobZemko

      Good one !!!!

      October 12, 2011 at 14:19 | Report abuse |
    • Allison

      You try going to a dentist in Britain, it's expensive if you're over 16. Besides, American teeth aren't much better.

      October 12, 2011 at 15:41 | Report abuse |
    • bsitz

      Please, American teeth look like veneers compared to British teeth.

      October 12, 2011 at 16:12 | Report abuse |
    • dewed

      That's because American teeth often ARE veneers...at least in Hollywood.

      October 12, 2011 at 16:32 | Report abuse |
  5. Wolf69

    @Boris, That was her spittin' hole.

    October 12, 2011 at 14:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. KTexas

    1) It's not a virus, it's a bacteria. 2) If you read the article, modern day anti-biotics easily take care of the modern version which, if you read the article, is nearly the same as the ancient one that caused the Black Plaque. So there is almost no threat to anyone. Now smallpox, which we do have two samples of in the world, is a completely different story.

    October 12, 2011 at 14:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. BobZemko

    This just in: a recent study states that an overdose of plague can lead to increases in prostate cancer.

    October 12, 2011 at 14:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. ekw

    Michael Strahan? is that you?!?

    October 12, 2011 at 14:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Various Authors

    Quarantine wasn't "developed". It was noticed that the plague wasn't affecting Jewish communities as much as the rest of Europe. The reason was they lived by biblical laws and statutes regarding cleanliness, proper disposal of waste and garbage, and, when necessary, quarantined the sick. The rest of Europe finally caught on. That is how the plague was defeated. What were you saying again about ignorant bible belief, Al?

    October 12, 2011 at 14:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Martin

      Quarantine was a common practice of many peoples in many places going way back to before the practice was recorded in the Old Testament. The term is derived from the Italian word quarantena, which refers to a period of 40 days.

      October 12, 2011 at 15:07 | Report abuse |
    • Dude

      The rest of Europe decided that the plague was the Jews fault. Accused them of poisoning wells and attacked them. Jews were routinely slaughtered and tortured. Hurray for science.

      October 12, 2011 at 15:47 | Report abuse |
    • moses

      And don't forget the goat sacrificing the bible also requires. Thanks bible!

      October 12, 2011 at 16:43 | Report abuse |
    • aao13

      "plague wasn't affecting Jewish communities as much as the rest of Europe" sounds like religious propaganda to me , do you care to provide a source for such miracle among jews? Did you just make it up?

      October 12, 2011 at 17:37 | Report abuse |
    • E

      The good Christians noticed that Jews weren't getting it, so they blamed them and burned them alive in mass murdering frenzy.

      October 12, 2011 at 17:52 | Report abuse |
    • doctor

      In the old testament there was isolation for the duration of the disease such as leprosy. it was not called quarantine. . That word meaning 40 is Italian,a language that evolved from latin 1000 years after EXODUS was written.

      October 13, 2011 at 23:54 | Report abuse |
  10. palintwit

    When one takes a look at the Palin family it becomes very obvious that this disease is very much alive and well in Wasilla.

    October 12, 2011 at 14:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Levi

      You make no sense. Read a book or two before commenting. I'm sorry for your family to have to deal with one with such "special needs"

      October 12, 2011 at 14:34 | Report abuse |
    • mun

      It becomes very obvious you're even dumber than Palin is

      October 12, 2011 at 14:44 | Report abuse |
  11. WARREN

    The teeth are definitely English.

    October 12, 2011 at 14:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • LNB

      Funniest post ever....thanks for the laugh. But what a fabulous article! Inner Pulp Chamber ~ this was my favorite part of the reading besides your posting!

      October 12, 2011 at 16:48 | Report abuse |
  12. zyklon

    Reference Marduk for further insight on this subject.

    October 12, 2011 at 14:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Colin

    Well, fortunately about 60% of the country still believes in the Dark Ages nonsense of Christianity, so we should be able to find some leeches, rosary beads, prayers or toad skins to cure us really quickly.

    October 12, 2011 at 14:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dood

      I have a book for you to read. It's called "The Genesis of Science" by James Hannam. "The theology of the Catholic Church led directly to the development of modern science," quoted verbatim from Hannam's book. And Hannam was no theologian but rather a physicist and historian.

      We've all been fed a load of lies about the "Dark Ages". This book will reveal the truth about that period. I highly recommend it. Great read!

      October 12, 2011 at 15:29 | Report abuse |
    • imastarchick

      Dood... did it ever occur to you that the church publishes propaganda too...

      October 12, 2011 at 16:20 | Report abuse |
    • BobZemko

      Dood, please cite more books that will do my thinking for me, too.

      October 12, 2011 at 16:22 | Report abuse |
    • ljf88

      Actually modern science came from Muslims. They discovered distillation (hence al-cohol), chemistry (al-chemy), algebra. Avicenna's The Book of Healing and The Canon of Medicine were standard textbooks in European medical universities for centuries.

      October 12, 2011 at 17:22 | Report abuse |
  14. eiswright

    The sadest part about your comment is that you think you're being clever. You dislike him so much, you go do the the job. Lets see how we all get along with Johnny 5 in office.

    October 12, 2011 at 14:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Bruinsdude

    Another version of Chinese imports!

    October 12, 2011 at 15:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Martin

    In response to eiswright-I don't agree at all with Johnny 5 wrote, but saying he should go try to do the job better is just as silly and childish as what he wrote. If I eat a lousy meal at a restaurant and complain about it, that doesn't mean I should know how to cook better than the folks in the kitchen. It just means I think that the folks in the kitchen don't belong there!

    October 12, 2011 at 15:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Potato Chip

    That skull contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects.

    October 12, 2011 at 15:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. GM

    Ya'll are hillarious!

    October 12, 2011 at 15:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Dood

    The people who acquired the disease and beat it must have had a heck of an immune system.

    October 12, 2011 at 15:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • dewed

      Yup, their ancestors would sail to the new world and kill off most of the inhabitants with diseases...

      October 12, 2011 at 16:34 | Report abuse |
  20. Maggio556

    There is a book called The Great Mortality that mentions a lot of this (other than the link to modern plague) that anyone interested in this should read. Really good book with in depth research.

    October 12, 2011 at 15:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Where do they come from

    @Martin actually you should learn to cook before you complain, speaking of politics.

    October 12, 2011 at 15:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Ute Man 2010

    Oh sure go digging up all those old sites and let the monster lose again...

    October 12, 2011 at 15:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Maggio556

      @Richard, there were two spikes of outbreaks and yes they believe one of them was a hemmoragic fever with some plague areas but there was deff. an outbreak of plague.

      October 12, 2011 at 15:41 | Report abuse |
    • BioHzrd420

      Guess you missed that part about plague still existing today and is treatable with antibiotics. Selective reading anyone?

      October 12, 2011 at 15:46 | Report abuse |
  23. Richard

    I thought they've now attributed the plague in Europe to a hemmoragic fever rather than a bubonic bacteria?

    October 12, 2011 at 15:33 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Chris R

      Not to my knowledge and I do try to keep up on these things. There really hasn't been any decent proof that it was anything but Y. Pestis. There is a small yet vocal group of people who deny that the Plague was caused by Y. Pestis but in the main their arguments generally don't stand up to scrutiny. They do have some valid points but a closer inspection of the evidence incorporates and explains them without positing an entirely new disease. Anyway, the fact that researchers pulled Y.Pestis from the teeth of plague victims pretty much conclusive proves that the plague was caused by this bacteria.

      October 12, 2011 at 16:14 | Report abuse |
    • Maggio556

      there were two spikes of outbreaks and yes they believe one of them was a hemmoragic fever with some plague areas but there was deff. an outbreak of plague.

      October 12, 2011 at 16:20 | Report abuse |
    • doctor

      Actually the plague comes in 3 forms. Bubonic,pneumonic(lungs) and hemorrhagic. Of course other germs espeially viruses can cause hemmorhage with fever, hence the confusion in definitions.

      October 14, 2011 at 00:04 | Report abuse |
  24. Sad

    Let's hope Johnny5 doesn't run for office; he never even learned how to use apostrophes. And that's usually covered in third grade.

    October 12, 2011 at 15:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. John

    Really who funds these useless projects? In this economy...

    October 12, 2011 at 16:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • imastarchick

      apparently University of Tübingen, Germany, as it might be of concern to us because HALF of Europe died and plagues were an ongoing contributor to the disorganization of the economies in Europe during the Dark Ages... Really you cant see the relevance?

      October 12, 2011 at 16:26 | Report abuse |
  26. imastarchick

    I like Obama, and I like Johnny 5s smart alec comment and I hate using apostrophes and I hate posters who think they are smarter than everyone else because they are less lazy at typing, or because they proof read.

    October 12, 2011 at 16:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. imastarchick

    I hate the plague too...

    October 12, 2011 at 16:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Type 1

    I contracted the modern version from a feral cat bite. I was sick for weeks with an IV of antibiotics stuck in my arm 24/7. I know of four other people who have had it. Three of them died within hours of exposure. One guy was doing a necropsy on a cougar in Grand Canyon Nat'l Park and died shortly thereafter. The two others who died had just killed and skinned a cougar in Colorado. The one other person is a health department employee who takes samples from prairie dog dens looking for infected fleas. It's miserably painful and I wouldn't with it on anyone.

    October 12, 2011 at 16:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ruralvoice

      There is a series of injections (three during 6 months) that health workers can take for immunity to the Plague; so, I am curious as to why anyone in this line of work wouldn't be required to have this immunity (provided by an employer).

      October 12, 2011 at 18:20 | Report abuse |
  29. Type 1

    Here's the story of the guy who died at Grand Canyon from plague.


    October 12, 2011 at 16:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Type 1

    The type of plague I had was Septicemic Plague. The cat that bit me had it in his mouth so his tooth going into my flesh was akin to an injection of disease. The other type of plague is inhaled. Both types have the same end result if not treated early. Death.

    October 12, 2011 at 16:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. driranek

    Good thing we don't give antibiotics to rats like we do with cattle and fowl or we'd be breeding yet another unstoppable disease.

    October 12, 2011 at 17:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. John

    Good luck on the tetracycline. I'm a pharmacist and we have been unable to get tetracycline for weeks. And no one can tell me why except it is on backorder.

    October 12, 2011 at 17:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. TheDeadCollector

    Bring out your dead!

    October 12, 2011 at 17:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Darth_Tiki

      I'm not dead!

      October 14, 2011 at 00:43 | Report abuse |
  34. Rhehudio

    @ john
    I can't believe you would resort to an economic attack here. This kind of research is dear to the economy of R&D. Do you even know what they are going to do with the results from this? Do you know who uses this info and learns from it increasing the ability of our drugs in the next ten years? Pharmaceutical companies. The guys who can afford to do this sort of research... The guys that did buy this research. This finding represents more jobs in that field. It's silly to think that because you're struggling (as am I) that the money someone else spends on something that doesn't directly benefit you isn't beneficial to all. Selfish really.

    October 12, 2011 at 17:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. ruralvoice

    In 1995 my son died from the Pneumonic Plague (Yersinia Pestis bacteria in lungs). He was ill for 14 days after diagnosis and then passed away. He had been camping in the 4000' elevation in the mountains in Southern California where we lived. Although, Y.Pestis can be treated with anti-biotics, the extremely rapid onset and rapid progression of the disease causes one to be too far gone for the antibiotic (as simple as Tetracycline) to effectively work. And, it takes about 48 hours to firmly diagnose this illness when one is not suspecting it. In my son's case, he was 23, and I'm sure he felt immortal and would not go to the hospital for a little cold (with are the initial symptoms). By the time he went to see the doctor in the emergency room is was probably two days into development. The most susceptible folks are the younger set, again, because they would not normally go to the doctor unless the "cold" got really bad, but, unfortunately, if you have the plague (especially Pneumonic Plague) that's probably too late which is the reason it has such high mortality.

    So remember, just because it is easily treatable with simple antibiotics does not guarantee the modern age can deal effectively with occasional small outbreaks that occur due to infected rodents.

    I'll be happy to answer any questions to responders.

    October 12, 2011 at 18:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. michele

    Oh my God, it's Lauren Hutton!

    October 13, 2011 at 13:38 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Was the mystery revealed, or was the answer revealed. I think you meant to say that the answer to the mystery was revealed.

    October 13, 2011 at 21:06 | Report abuse | Reply
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    i am using this for a project... not anymore... its useless

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