Scientists confirm Justinianic Plague caused by bacterium Yersinia pestis

Credit: Thomas Hartmann

(Medical Xpress)—From the several pandemics generally called 'pestilences' three are historically recognized as due to plague, but only for the third pandemic of the 19th-21st centuries AD there were microbiological evidences that the causing agent was the bacterium Yersinia pestis.

"For a long time scholars from different disciplines have intensively discussed about the actual etiological agents of the past pandemics. Only ancient DNA analyses carried out on of plague victims could finally conclude the debate", said Dr. Barbara Bramanti of the Palaeogenetics Group at the Institute of Anthropology at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU).

About two years ago, she headed the international team which demonstrated beyond any doubt that Y. pestis also caused the second pandemic of the 14th-17th centuries including the Black Death, the infamous epidemic that ravaged Europe from 1346-1351. Bramanti and her Mainz colleague Stephanie Hänsch now cooperated with the University of Munich, the German Bundeswehr, and to solve the debate as to whether Y. pestis caused the so-called Justinianic Plague of the 6th-8th centuries AD.

The results of analyses carried out on the early medieval cemetery of Aschheim in Bavaria were published last week in PloS Pathogens.

They confirmed unambiguously that Y. pestis was indeed the causing agent of the first pandemic, in contrast to what has been postulated by other scientists recently. This revolutionary result is supported by the analysis of the genotype of the ancient strain which provide information about the phylogeny and the place of origin of this plague. As for the second and third , the original sources of the bacillus were in Asia.

"It remains questionable whether at the time of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian only one strain or more were disseminated in Europe, as it was at the time of the ," suggested Bramanti and Hänsch. To further investigate this and other open questions about the modalities and route of transmission of the medieval plagues, Bramanti has recently obtained an ERC Advanced Grant for the project "The medieval plagues: ecology, transmission modalities and routes of the infection" (MedPlag) and will move to the Center for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES) at the University of Oslo in Norway. The CEES, chaired by Nils Chr. Stenseth, has an outstanding and rewarded record of excellence in the research on infectious diseases and in particular on Y. pestis.

More information: Harbeck, M. et al. (2013), Yersinia pestis DNA from Skeletal Remains from the 6th Century AD Reveals Insights into Justinianic Plague, PLoS Pathog 9(5): e1003349. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1003349

Related Stories

Researchers reconstruct genome of the Black Death

Oct 12, 2011

led by researchers at McMaster University and the University of Tubingen in Germany -- has sequenced the entire genome of the Black Death, one of the most devastating epidemics in human history.

US approves new treatment for ancient plague

Apr 27, 2012

Hardly anyone succumbs to the bubonic plague these days, but US health authorities on Friday approved a new treatment for it and other forms of the potentially deadly bacterial infection.

Researchers discover origin of the Black Death

Aug 30, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- The bacteria responsible for causing the 1348 Black Death, identified as one of the most cataclysmic events in human history, has been identified by a McMaster researcher.

Recommended for you

Two US states order tough Ebola quarantine rules

10 hours ago

New York and New Jersey on Friday ordered a mandatory quarantine for medics who treated victims of Ebola in West Africa, after the deadly virus spread to America's largest city.

NY and NJ say they will require Ebola quarantines

Oct 24, 2014

The governors of New Jersey and New York on Friday ordered a mandatory, 21-day quarantine for all doctors and other arriving travelers who have had contact with Ebola victims in West Africa.

User comments