DNA from the same microbe that caused first the Justinian Plague and later the Black Death has been resurrected by scientists after they extracted material from the 1,500 year old teeth of plague victims. The Justinian Plague happened in the year 541 and ended up killing 50 million people, making it one of the deadliest plagues in history. However, the Black Death, which occurred hundreds of years later, was responsible for killing an estimated 75 million people. The plagues were considered bubonic because they caused swelling of the lymph nodes. The word is derived from the Greek word for lymph nodes: buboes.
A bit of fancy modern dentistry was part of the successful resurrection of the bacteria’s genetic code. Scientists had to extract dental pulp from the ancient teeth. Lucky for them, they were able to obtain blood from the pulp which yielded the DNA. Lucky for the rest of the world’s population, there’s probably nothing to fear from the scientists’ experiments; modern medicine nearly guarantees the obliteration of any potential Black Death plague type of outbreak from this particular bacteria, which is called Yersinia Pestis.
In fact, different strains of the same bacteria have popped up from time to time in the United States, and they’ve been successfully knocked out by antibiotics. While the Justinian Plague is thought to have been the final nail in the coffin of the Roman Empire, there’s most likely no such concern it could cause similar havoc in modern times in the U.S. However, in parts of the world where there is less access to medicine, the Bubonic Plague still kills thousands of people each year.
While there is not much chance of the extracted DNA causing any problems, some researchers are still telling a cautionary tale and recommending that these types of bacteria should be monitored closely. Hendrik Poinar directs the ancient DNA department at McMaster University in Canada. He says it’s essential that medical personnel and scientists never get overconfident when it comes to the potential for diseases similar to the Black Death to be spread. “The key point here is that this bug can re-emerge in new forms in humans and can have a tremendous impact on human mortality,” he says. “It’s done it three times in the past and we should be monitoring it for the future.”
Poinar was speaking about the three separate plagues caused by the same microbe from which scientists have recently extracted the DNA. This pesky little bugger was quite the monster back before current medicine. Not only did it cause the Black Plague and the Justinian Plague; it also caused a third plague known as, quite fittingly, the Third Plague. That outbreak killed 12 million people before dying out, and it stayed contained to India and China.
Many questions remain for researchers working on the dangerous bug, such as why it died out and how it re-emerged. The Bubonic Plague in all its incarnations is extremely deadly and can cause the demise of an otherwise healthy person within just four days or sooner if left untreated. Scientists are working to unlock all of the mysteries of the ancient microbe’s DNA.
1,500 year old teeth have yielded a wealth of information to researchers about the Black Death, aka, the Bubonic Plague. The dangerous microbe has been resurrected, but the purpose for the study can benefit the overall health and wellness of society by revealing crucial data to scientists interested in stamping out disease. The findings have been published in the peer reviewed journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
By: Rebecca Savastio