Molecular history of plague

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Plague, a deadly zoonose caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, has been firmly documented in 39 historical burial sites in Eurasia that date from the Bronze Age to two historical pandemics spanning the 6th to 18th centuries. Palaeomicrobiologic data, including gene and spacer sequences, whole genome sequences and protein data, confirmed that two historical pandemics swept over Europe from probable Asian sources and possible two-way-ticket journeys back from Europe to Asia. These investigations made it possible to address questions regarding the potential sources and routes of transmission by completing the standard rodent and rodent–flea transmission scheme. This suggested that plague was transmissible by human ectoparasites such as lice, and that Y. pestis was able to persist for months in the soil, which is a source of reinfection for burrowing mammals. The analyses of seven complete genome sequences from the Bronze Age indicated that Y. pestis was probably not an ectoparasite-borne pathogen in these populations. Further analyses of 14 genomes indicated that the Justinian pandemic strains may have formed a clade distinct from the one responsible for the second pandemic, spanning in Y. pestis branch 1, which also comprises the third pandemic strains. Further palaeomicrobiologic studies must tightly connect with historical and anthropologic studies to resolve questions regarding the actual sources of plague in ancient populations, alternative routes of transmission and resistance traits. Answering these questions will broaden our understanding of plague epidemiology so we may better face the actuality of this deadly infection in countries where it remains epidemic.




Drancourt, M., & Raoult, D. (2016, November 1). Molecular history of plague. Clinical Microbiology and Infection. Elsevier B.V.

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