Plague, Black Death Were Different, and That's Bad News
A new strain could rise up that's just as deadly: scientists
By Neal Colgrass, Newser Staff
Posted Jan 27, 2014 7:35 PM CST
"The Triumph of Death," by Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder.   (Wikimedia Commons)

(Newser) – The Plague of Justinian and the Black Death arose from separate bacteria strains, researchers say—and that's not a good thing, because if distinct plagues have ravaged the human population before, they could come up again, LiveScience reports. A group of researchers came to this conclusion by digging up two victims of the Black Death in Germany and studying DNA fragments in their teeth. They reconstructed the disease's genome and compared it to more than a hundred contemporary strains of plague, but no luck—the Black Death was an evolutionary dead end.

This "generates new questions," says the study's top author. "For example, why did this [Justinian] pandemic, which killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people, die out?" Maybe people built up an immunity to the bacteria, AFP notes, or natural climate variation could have stopped the germs from spreading. Either way, plague remains a threat in some countries, like Madagascar, where people live in closer proximity to flea-carrying rodents. Even the US has a few bubonic plague infections each year. "Fortunately we now have antibiotics that could be used to effectively treat plague, which lessens the chances of another large scale human pandemic," says a co-author of the study.

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Showing 3 of 27 comments
Jan 28, 2014 6:13 PM CST
Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!
Jan 28, 2014 3:29 PM CST
There is a growing number of scientists who think the black death was actually two separate diseases since all the reports across Europe reflect two ways to die. There was the Pneumonic plague which killed in hours and had a nearly 90% fatality rate and there was the black death which had a 40% fatality rate which killed over a period of days. The few reports from physicians of the day and priests indicate a bleeding out similar to ebola. The second had bubonic plague symptoms. We will never really know what the Pneumonic plague was since something striking in hours does not leave a trace in teeth or any where else. But is it known that northern Europeans carry one or two genes specifically traced to the black Death and bacterial infections do not cause that kind of genetic change, only viruses do. If it was a virus, then that could be lurking somewhere waiting for a host. 500-700 years is not that significant to a virus.
Norman Johnson
Jan 28, 2014 3:17 PM CST
Lets hope there doesn't evolve an antibiotic strain of the Plague like has happened with some diseases like Syphillus.