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DNA analysis reveals cause of 6th century plague

Scientists have performed DNA analysis on the bones of 6th century victims of a plague to determine the exact nature of the pandemic.

There have been three pandemics generally attributed to being caused by the plague, but only on the last of them was there significant microbial proof that the bacterium responsible for the plague, Yersinia Pestis, was involved. Scientists have been debating the true nature of the other two pandemics for a long time. The second pandemic (which included the infamous Black Death that ravaged Europe in the 14th century) was revealed by researchers only two years ago to have been caused by plague as well. The only remaining pandemic then, is the Justinianic Plague which lasted between the 6th and 8th centuries CE.

It might not have looked like this, but the plague most likely felt like this.


Dr. Barbara Bramanti of the Palaeogenetics Group at the Institute of Anthropology at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, who confirmed the origins of the second plague, is now heading up research on the Justinianic pandemic. She explains how the only way to determine the origin of such an ancient pandemic is to perform a DNA analysis of a victim’s bones. Such a DNA analysis has now been performed and the results are, surprise surprise, that the Justinianic plague was indeed an official plague caused by Yersinia Pestis. Dr. Bramanti does however point out that we cannot be sure if the plague was the only cause of the pandemic. It’s entirely possible another pathogen was contributing to the plague.


The research was conducted on bones dug out of the medieval cemetery at Aschheim in Bavaria, and the results were published last week in PLoS Pathogens. The research finally gives science a clear picture on what happened during the three plagues. It is curious to note that the plague is still around, and the WHO gets somewhere between 1000 and 2000 reported cases each year. Last year, there were four reported cases of bubonic plague in the United States. Thankfully, with modern medicine and antibiotics, the disease is quite treatable.

David F.
A grad student in experimental physics, David is fascinated by science, space and technology. When not buried in lecture books, he enjoys movies, gaming and mountainbiking

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