Genetics of pest pathogens decoded

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Genome of medieval plague bacteria decoded

After researchers at the University of Tübingen, together with Canadian colleagues, reported back in August that they had identified the plague bacterium that was responsible for the spread of the fatal plague in Central Europe in the 14th century, it is now up to them to decipher the genetic material of the Yersinia pestis bacteria succeeded.

The Yersinia pestis bacteria have long been considered the likely trigger of the plague in the Middle Ages. The researchers at the University of Tübingen confirmed this suspicion in August as part of a comprehensive investigation. Now they have succeeded in decoding the genome of the plague bacteria. The Yersinia pestis bacterium differs only in a few places from the plague pathogens still common today, report Prof. Dr. Johannes Krause from the University of Tübingen and colleagues in the current issue of the specialist journal "Nature".

The mother of all plague pathogens According to the researchers, Yersinia pestis was "the mother of all plague pathogens of today, so to speak" and was responsible for the plague epidemic also known as "black death" in Central Europe in the 14th century, according to various scientific data between 25 and 50 percent of Europeans Population died. Prof. Johannes Krause from the University of Tübingen and colleagues have now decoded the pathogen's bacterial heritage and presented it in the journal "Nature". The researchers found that the genome of the Yersinia pestis bacteria is amazingly similar to the plague bacteria that still occur today. The genome of the bacteria from the Middle Ages differs from the next plague pathogens that are still widespread only in twelve places. According to the experts, the fact that the plague only triggered such a fatal epidemic in the 14th century is due to the fact that when the pathogens first appeared, “neither humans nor their immune systems knew how to deal with them”. However, in the course of the epidemic, the majority of the people who were particularly susceptible to the pathogens died and the survivors probably had a more resistant immune system, the researchers explained for the absence of further plague epidemics. In addition, the population later prepared itself better against the spread of the plague through improved hygiene and the introduction of quarantine for the sick and so-called plague houses.

Researchers at the University of Tübingen were able to finally prove Yersinia pestis as the cause of the plague epidemic in the Middle Ages in August after genetically analyzing more than 100 skeletons from a plague cemetery in London and searching for traces of the pathogens together with Canadian and British colleagues. The sequencing of less than one percent of the genome of the pathogen was sufficient to provide unequivocal evidence, emphasized Prof. Johannes Krause when the results were published in the US specialist magazine "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" (PNAS). Already after the first investigations, Krause explained that there are many indications that "at least part of the genetic information of pest pathogens has hardly changed in the past 600 years".

Plague in the Middle Ages claimed 25 million lives The plague epidemic between 1347 and 1353 was the largest epidemic in Europe to date and claimed around 25 million lives. According to current knowledge, the infectious disease initially spread to Asia and from here it reached Europe with the rats on board ships. Especially in cities like Cologne, Hamburg or Bremen, the Black Death rages in Germany with fatal consequences, whereby the pathogens were able to spread quickly due to the poor hygiene and the relatively high population density. However, despite the extensive research, it is still not entirely clear why the plague spread so quickly in the 14th century, whereas today's plague pathogens spread much more slowly even if there are no hygiene facilities and no medical care. According to figures from the World Health Organization (WHO), around 100 to 200 people worldwide still die from the plague every year, and up to 3,000 diseases are registered each year, with a large proportion of the plague infections in developing countries. However, these numbers cannot be compared with the infection numbers from the Middle Ages. (fp)

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Photo credit: Cornelia Menichelli /
Image: Atlas of World History, Roger Zenner, Creative Commons by / sa / de

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