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A single strain of bacterium is responsible for killing millions during the plagues of the 14th and 17th centuries, as well as more recent outbreaks of the disease, a study has found.
Scientists believe that Yersinia pestis dubbed one of the deadliest pathogens in human history which spread the dreaded Black Death throughout Europe.
Using genetic analysis of remains from plague infected sites in Europe, the team has found evidence the bacterium spread from Europe into Asia, where it caused the third great plague outbreak in the early 1900s.
But their analysis has also been able to link it to a more recent outbreak in China and India, suggesting the bacterium spread to Asia from Europe.
The study looked at bodies from three plague infected sites: Two mass grave sites in Barcelona, Spain and Ellwangen, Germany; and a grave in Bolgar City, Russia.
DNA analysis of bacterial samples indicates the plague spread through the Mediterranean, passing through Barcelona, before surging northwards through Europe, reaching London and beyond in the 14th century.
Analysis of the bacterial family tree suggests it gave rise to strains found in Germany and France, and then spread through Russia and into China persisting as the source of a major plague outbreak in Asia at the end of the 19th century.
Bubonic plague ravaged Europe during its middle history, with millions dying from the disease in two major outbreaks with the Black Death alone wiping out more than one third of the European population in the 14th century.
After hundreds of years laying low, the disease returned to claim more lives in a second pandemic the Great Plague of the 17th and 18th centuries. But their analysis has also been able to link it to a more recent outbreak in China and India, suggesting the bacterium spread to Asia from Europe.
‘Our study is the first to provide genetic support for plague’s travel from Europe into Asia after the Black Death, and it establishes a link between the Black Death in the Cheap Nike Air Force 1 Ultra Flyknit Mid Unisex White Colorful Malaysia 14th century and modern plague,’ explained Maria Spyrou of the Cheap Nike Air Max 2016 806771-600 Men Red Malaysia Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in Germany.
They focused on three sites of historical outbreak of plague, from two mass graves in Spain and Germany and a single grave in Germany.
Genetic analysis of the bacterial ‘family tree’ of the samples suggests a single strain which arrived in Europe in the 14th century spread through the Mediterranean before surging northwards through Europe.
From this bacterial family tree it was clear that the bacteria responsible for the three major plague events were all from a single strain, say the researchers.
DID FAMINE MAKE THINGS WORSE?
Life in the 14th century could not have been easy.
In addition to the deadly plague spreading like wildfire across Europe (see right), people also had to deal with widespread famine.
Historians at Harvard University think that a extended spell of cool, wet weather would have led to crop failures and prolonged food shortages.
The lack of food would have meant a more susceptible host, potentially maximising the impact of the disease.
Researchers used ice core samples to estimate temperatures in the early 1300s as well as historical records. Their findings suggest a much wider region of Northern Europe may have been affected than previously thought.
The group believe that by the time plague hit the shores of Europe, the population may have already been weakened from decades of food shortages.
‘Though several plague lineages exist in China today, only the lineage that caused the Black Death several centuries earlier left Southeast Asia in the late 19th century pandemic and rapidly achieved a near worldwide distribution.’
The findings add further weight to research published at the beginning of the year, which reported the same bacterium which was responsible for the death of large swathes of the European population during the Black Death