Scientists Recreated One of Our Deadliest Plagues to Understand Its Evolution

The Yersinia pestis bacterium. Image: National Institute of Health
The bacterium behind the infamous Black Death plague recently resurfaced: Last year, a small outbreak killed several people in Colorado, and a larger pandemic on the island nation of Madagascar claimed the lives of at least 40 people in 2014. Since then, virologists have been trying to understand how Yersinia pestis, the organism responsible for the infectious disease, can mutate into new strains.

By Sarah Emerson | MOTHERBOARD

Thankfully, the remains of centuries-old victims have allowed scientists to investigate the disease, as if it were frozen in time. Now, new research published to Molecular Biology and Evolution sheds new light on how the lethal pathogen evolved over five-thousand years.

History’s first recorded pandemic, an outbreak called Justinian’s Plague, swept across the Byzantine Empire in 541 CE. It took the lives of 25 million people over the course of 225 years. Nearly five centuries later, the same pathogen would kill 60 percent of Europe’s population, only this time, we’d know it as the Black Death.

Two years ago, scientists unmasked the bacterium behind Justinian’s Plague as the same one that caused the Medieval pandemic.

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