Triggering plague bacteria identified

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Researchers identified the triggering bacteria of the plague

In the Middle Ages, the plague (Latin pestis = epidemic) took around a third of the European population and formed the most serious pandemic that mankind has ever experienced. Since then, the disease has also been known as "Black Death" and researchers around the world are still looking for the cause of the worldwide epidemic. Researchers from Canada and Germany have now successfully identified the plague pathogen.

Although the bacterium Yersinia pestis has long been considered the probable cause of the plague pandemic in the 14th century, no clear scientific evidence for the bacteria as the cause of the "black death" has yet been provided. This is now being provided by researchers from the University of Tübingen and the Canadian McMaster University in the current issue of the journal "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" (PNAS). As part of their study, the scientists genetically analyzed over 100 skeletons from a mass grave in a plague cemetery in London and searched for traces of the plague pathogens.

Genetics of the plague bacteria decoded As part of their investigation, the researchers were able to decode the genetic material of the pathogen that had led to the death of those affected and then compared it with the current form of the bacteria. The result was clear: The bacterium Yersinia pestis, which is still widespread in various regions around the world, was the cause of the plague pandemic in the 14th century, the scientists report. The assumption that the plague pandemic was possibly a disease similar to Ebola fever has not been confirmed, according to the researchers at the University of Tübingen. The experts stressed that the genetic analysis provided a definitive answer. As the study author Johannes Krause from the University of Tübingen explained, there is “no doubt” that the pandemic of “black death” was triggered by the bacteria Yersinia pestis. Today's Yersinia pestis bacteria are much more harmless than the pathogens of the Middle Ages, but the connection is clear. However, according to the experts, the original, considerably more aggressive form of the bacteria no longer exists. People are still infected with the pest pathogens, but the disease is much slower and far less fatal than in the plague pandemic in the Middle Ages. "This indicates that at least this part of the genetic information of pest pathogens has hardly changed in the past 600 years," said Prof. Dr. Johannes Krause from the University of Tübingen.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 100 to 200 people still die from the black plague every year. Up to 3000 cases are registered annually, with the disease rate being higher, especially in the 3rd world. The dangerous germ infect humans but also animals. The transmission route takes place primarily fleas from rats.

Pest spread quickly
The "black death", as the plague was called by people at the time, was the largest pandemic in Europe to date and raged between 1347 and 1353. According to scientific estimates, around 25 million people died as a result of the infectious disease. According to current knowledge, the pandemic initially started in Asia and eventually reached Europe. Due to the widespread prevalence, entire areas were depopulated, while other areas were spared or only partially affected. In the region of today's Germany, it is estimated that almost one in ten people died as a result of the plague. Cities such as Cologne, Hamburg or Bremen were the worst hit. Due to poor hygiene and a high population density at the time, the pathogen was able to spread quickly.

The plague is still puzzling researchers. For a long time, scientists had assumed that the plague agent was bubonic plague. The term "black death" could come from the fact that after infection people suffered from internal bleeding that looked like "black spots" on the skin. Despite the research results, it is still not entirely clear why the plague was able to spread so quickly in the Middle Ages, whereas today's plague pathogen can spread much more slowly, even if no medical care is available. This must now be determined by further research. (sb)

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Photo credit: Cornelia Menichelli /
Image: Atlas of World History, Roger Zenner, Creative Commons by / sa / de

Author and source information

Video: Bubonic Plague I Black Death. Plague. Yersinia pestis. Pandemic of the past. Basic Science Series


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