Teeth Provide Clues to Plague Pathology



The Black Death killed between 30% and 50% of Europe’s entire population in the fourteenth century and then returned to claim millions more victims during the next 3 centuries. Epidemiologists who want to uncover its origins are now turning to archeologists for help, and they are finding clues in the teeth of the dead.

Researchers led by the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, used teeth found in the mass graves of the Great Plague of Marseille, which victimized France from 1720 to 1722, to access tiny fragments of DNA that had been preserved since then and reconstruct complete pathogen genomes.

“To our surprise, the eighteenth century plague seems to be a form that is no longer circulating,” said computational analyst Alexander Herbig, “and it descends directly from the disease that entered Europe during the Black Death several centuries earlier.”

Since these samples are distinct from all modern forms of plague, the researchers believe they have identified an extinct form of the disease. However, they caution that they have not identified the geographical source of the plague, which could have been imported from far off destinations or have originated somewhere nearby in Europe.

“It’s a chilling thought that plague might have once been hiding right around the corner throughout Europe, living in a host which is not known to us yet,” said Johannes Krause, director of the department of archaeogenetics at MPI. “Future work might help us to identify the mysterious host species, its range, and the reason for its disappearance.”

The study, “Eighteenth Century Yersinia Pestis Genomes Reveal the Long-Term Persistence of an Historical Plague Focus,” was published by eLife.

Related Articles

Genetic Roots of Cleft Lip and Palate Investigated

Enamel Offers Clues to the Body’s Growth Cycles

Researchers Study Fish to Regenerate Teeth