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Scientists Find Possible "Extinct" Form Of Mid-14th-Century Black Death

Update Date: Jan 23, 2016 03:16 PM EST

In the mid-14th century, the Black Death plague killed 30 to 50 percent of the European population, leading to high mortality and social disarray for three centuries.

And then, it suddenly disappeared!

That left many questions unanswered---how was it created? Why did it break out again, and how did it suddenly disappear?

Researchers at the Max Planck Society  are trying to give some answers to these questions and have built up total pathogen genomes from the victims of the epidemic at Marseille, which was the last outbreak in medieval Europe.

The scientists extracted some teeth from Marseille plague pits and also looked at tiny fragments of DNA within the fossils.

"We faced a significant challenge in reconstructing these ancient genomes," Alexander Herbig, a computational analyst that participated in the research, said in a press release. "To our surprise, the 18th-century plague seems to be a form that is no longer circulating, and it descends directly from the disease that entered Europe during the Black Death, several centuries earlier."

Due to its strange and rather unique features that make it different from modern plagues, the team feels that they have unearthed the "extinct form of the disease". Even though the geographic source of the plague has not yet been found, there are a number of candidates due to the diverse regions that Marseille shipped and received from. Still, the illness may also have originated closer home.

"Our results suggest that the disease was hiding somewhere in Europe for several hundred years," said Kirsten Bos, lead author of the study.

"It's a chilling thought that plague might have once been hiding right around the corner throughout Europe, living in a host which is not known to us yet," said Johannes Krause, who participated in the research. "Future work might help us to identify the mysterious host species, its range and the reason for its disappearance".

The findings were published in the Jan. 21,2016 issue of eLife.

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