Why Scientists have Recreated the Genetic Code that Caused the Black Death

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"Why Scientists have Recreated the Genetic Code that Caused the Black Death"
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The Black Death was one of the worst plagues to affect humans in global history, and scientists have long been trying to figure out how a bacteria could cause so many deaths back in the 14th century. Also known as the Bubonic Plague, this disease swept through Western Europe and killed tens of millions of people.

Maintaining a presence until the early 1700s, there has long been questions and concerns which scientists have been trying to unravel. The effect of the Black Death in history has been quite profound, affecting cultural, economic, political and religious movements in societal development.

The New York Daily News reported scientists "cracked the genetic code of the Black Death", and, in the process learned that the bacteria has not evolved much over the years, however people have.

Researches note that between the changes in society, medicine (technology), and the human body itself, these have "far outpaced" the lethal bacteria that caused so many deaths back in earlier centuries. Through the study experts learned only a "few dozen" changes (New York Times reports the number is 97 DNA units) had occurred amongst over four million building blocks of DNA.

As a part of research scientists have been collecting the DNA from bones of those who had fallen victim to the plague and were buried in a London cemetery. According to PBS, genetic blueprints were taken from teeth which were extracted from the Black Death victims.  The teeth were then compared with "modern-day" bubonic plague.

PBS held an interview with geneticist Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University, who was a leading member of the team of researchers examining the remains of Black Death victims.

PBS posed the question "Why sequence the genome of a bacterium that was killing people almost 700 years ago?"

Poinar responded, "I think one of the reasons is really so that we can hope to understand perhaps why it was so deadly. So were there intrinsic changes in the genome of the Black Death pathogen that led to be exceptionally virulent, leading to this high mortality, which you just mentioned killed some 50 percent of the European population in 1346."

Overall the consensus from scientists is that the conditions of life back then, rather than the properties of the bacterium, had more to do with why the Bubonic Plague was so terrible. In the 14th century, very cold conditions had emerged, heavy rains, there had been a huge famine which resulted in poor nutrition, and overall lowered resistance and immunity was likely a big contributor to the mass infection and deaths that occurred.

This breakthrough is likely to help scientists uncover more history mysteries where ancient deadly breakouts of diseases had occurred reports the New York Times.

Eventually scientists hope to modify the bacterium and recreate an identical to the one that existed back in earlier centuries, but this would require extreme careful handling in a specially secured facility.

The study was published this past week in the journal Nature.

More about this author: Leigh Goessl

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