Yersinia pestis and the Plague of Justinian 541–543 AD: a genomic analysis

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Wagner DM et al. Yersinia pestis and the Plague of Justinian 541-543 AD: a genomic analysis. Lancet Infect Dis. 2014 Jan 27. pii: S1473-3099(13)70323-2. doi: 10.1016/S1473-3099(13)70323-2. [Epub ahead of print]

In a fascinating study, Wagner et al explore the nature of the first plague pandemic (the Plague of Justinian, 6-8th centuries), and in particular its genetic relationship to the second and third pandemics (respectively, the Black death in the 14-17th centuries, and the 19-20th century pandemic). Yersinia pestis DNA from individuals who died in the first pandemic was extracted, amplified, sequenced and compared to a database of genomes of Yersinia pestis strains from the second and third pandemics.

This comparison allowed the authors to show that the Y. pestis strain responsible for the Plague of Justinian and that responsible for the later medieval Black Death represented two separate emergences from the rodent to the human population;  the strain responsible for the first pandemic appears to have become extinct. The mechanisms for its disappearance are still to be investigated, but may involve an emergence of resistance in the surviving populations.

Posted by Alina Levtova, MD



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