Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Biotech Medicine

Scientists Sequence Black Death Bacteria 265

Posted by samzenpus
from the what-could-go-wrong? dept.
First time accepted submitter Quince alPillan writes "The bacteria behind the Black Death has a very unusual history. Its ancestor is an unassuming soil bacterium and the current strains of Yersinia pestis still infects thousands of people annually, but no longer causes the suite of horrifying symptoms associated with the medieval plagues. The radical differences, in fact, had led some to suggest that we had been blaming the wrong bacteria. Now, researchers have obtained DNA from some of London's plague victims, and confirmed that Y. pestis appears to be to blame. But the sequences also suggest that the strains of bacteria we see today may be different from the ones that rampaged through Europe."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Scientists Sequence Black Death Bacteria

Comments Filter:
  • Blackteria
  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @12:21PM (#37254780)

    the Black Death was ugly. Imagine half the population of your entire city or town dying off in 1 or 2 years. Nasty business that.

    But, that said, people really should take a more reasoned approach to disease alarmism these days. All this "This latest pandemic is going to kill us ALL!!" Chicken Little shit gets tiresome. The Littles always cite the Black Death and 1918 pandemic [wikipedia.org] as if that's what we could expect from a pandemic today--all without noting the MASSIVE improvements in sanitation, medical science, vaccine research, etc. that make this scale of pandemic highly unlikely in the modern era.

    The Black Death could have been stopped in its tracks if those 14th-century peasants had even an inkling of the basic medical/sanitation knowledge that even the biggest idiots among us know today. Basic stuff like "Wash your hands regularly," "Cover your mouth when you cough," and "Don't let your goddamned flea-infested farm animals wander around through your living area, moron" are surprisingly recent bits of common sense that the developed world today takes for granted. Of course, there are still some third-world shitholes where people think that a witch-doctor rubbing feces on an open wound will ward off the evil spirits. But even those places usually have a FEW among them with some basic sense (and soap).

    • by phrackwulf (589741) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @12:31PM (#37254882) Homepage

      There is a legitimate point to considering the technological ability to both communicate more rapidly about a highly infectious disease and approach a new and lethal strain with modern decontamination and medical systems. That doesn't rule out the possibility of certain very specialized and nasty toxins such as Bacillus anthracis and other hybrid biological weapons. The real danger is in a strain of bacteria that can infect a host, cause relatively mild and temporary symptoms, then reinfect and spread after a period of time leading to a lethal toxicity in the effected patient and the people they have probably come into contact with. Obviously, the really virulent diseases like Ebola Zaire are so nasty that they burn themselves out fairly rapidly because the infected population dies before they can spread the virus. As our knowledge of DNA sequencing and protein structures increases though, we start to arrive at a set of tools that could lead to truly frightening weapons and bacterial/viral hybrids. Diseases that can switch on and off based on environmental triggers. Or how about a bacteria that multiplies rapidly and uncontrollably under a certain PSI of air pressure in one's lungs?

      • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

        by Dunbal (464142) *

        The real danger is in a strain of bacteria that can infect a host, cause relatively mild and temporary symptoms, then reinfect and spread after a period of time leading to a lethal toxicity in the effected patient and the people they have probably come into contact with.

        You then went on to talk about Ebola, which is a virus - so fair game: The REAL danger is a virus that infects people and shows virtually no symptoms for many years, and then kills them. Oh wait, we already have one, it's called HIV. Do you have HIV? No? How do you know? When was your last series of tests? Better yet, there is no cure, only treatment. Which means you can go on and potentially infect people for the rest of your life-span provided you can afford the treatment. This way you get a mortal diseas

        • by rubycodez (864176)
          No, only certain demographic groups have the rising incidence of infection. For example, if you are white male who doesn't engage in homosexual activity (e.g. taking it in the ass with a penis), your chances of getting AID are mighty slim.
        • Meh.

          The transmission method of HIV is also pretty well known, so assuming that you have an ounce of common sense in your head, it's not terribly difficult to remain at least somewhat protected from the disease. No unprotected sex outside of monogamous relationships, hospitals screen blood before performing transfusions, use rubber gloves when potentially coming into contact with bodily fluids, etc. It's not 100% safe (what is?) but it's a far, far cry from your hysteria-inducing "It's only a matte
      • by mlts (1038732) *

        We have had some victories over disease -- the "swine flue" for example was slated to be a pandemic on the order of SARS. However, through quick action, it had less of an effect than the generic flu does each year.

        However, we are losing the front in other ways. Take bedbugs for example. After WWII and DDT, they pretty much were removed from our existence until 2-3 years ago. Now they are back with a vengeance, and there are no real effective bedbug treatments. Of course, there is the good old flu which

    • by Rob the Bold (788862) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @12:31PM (#37254892)

      All this "This latest pandemic is going to kill us ALL!!" Chicken Little shit gets tiresome. The Littles always cite the Black Death and 1918 pandemic [wikipedia.org] as if that's what we could expect from a pandemic today--all without noting the MASSIVE improvements in sanitation, medical science, vaccine research, etc. that make this scale of pandemic highly unlikely in the modern era.

      I don't think I read the same summary and article as you did.

      • by tgd (2822)

        Thats because he a) didn't read it and b) doesn't know what he's talking about.

        Both points are obvious to those who a) did and b) do.

    • I'm sure you know this but for those that don't, they didn't bury the bodies, they burned them. Too many bodies to dispose of in a timely manor. That, and the stench was unbearable.

      • by EdZ (755139)
        They did both. Many bodies were cremated, but there were certainly mass graves, and probably open mass graves (I'm sure after the first few times you uncover the body pit you just give up on covering it until it fills up).
      • by robthebloke (1308483) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @12:50PM (#37255098)
        Very true. To recover the corpses of the plauge victims, they dug up some ash, unburnt it to get back to original bodies, and were able to extract samples of the original bacterium from that. It's remarkable what technology can do these days don't you think?
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Dog-Cow (21281)

          I think I saw that on an episode of CSI:Miami!

        • by MightyYar (622222)

          Shhhhhhhh! People will be on to where Nescafe comes from.

        • You had me up until "unburnt". My god I have never laughed so hard at work. Well done.
        • by rubycodez (864176)
          Separating the reanimation bacterium dna from that of the black plague proved the most troublesome step, but fortunately they were able to contact an experienced undead dna sample collector in the housewares section of a local department store. His methodology included:

          *cocking lever action carbine* C'mon she-bitch, let's go!
        • by canajin56 (660655)
          It's actually pretty basic. When you burn something, you add heat and then you end up with ash and smoke. So to unburn something, you need to take ash and smoke, and then add a spark of cold (not absolute zero cold, which is just a lack of heat, but actual cold, the opposite of heat) to ignite the unflames. The problem is to get completely accurate unburning results you need the original smoke, which is hard to pull off after so long. But usually you can just burn a pig and use that smoke. Not as accur
    • by mr1911 (1942298)

      All this "This latest pandemic is going to kill us ALL!!" Chicken Little shit gets tiresome.

      Yeah, but your favorite news anchor coming on saying, "a few people got sick on the other side of the world and there is absolutely nothing for you to worry about and it is nonsense we are even covering this story anyway" does not translate into a full news program for people to stay glued to and soak up all of those advertising minutes and associated dollars back to the network.

      News is about advertising and profit, not news.

      • by Anomalyst (742352)
        That talking head anchor critter is NOT providing information, It is not even DATA, it is NEWS, of little use or consequence to a thinking being.
    • by mcmonkey (96054) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @12:41PM (#37254990) Homepage

      the Black Death was ugly. Imagine half the population of your entire city or town dying off in 1 or 2 years. Nasty business that.

      But imagine the morning commute. Or finding a parking spot at the mall. Getting a last minute table at your favorite restaurant.

      Just saying.

      • by xs650 (741277)
        You are definitely a "the cup is half full" type of person
      • by elrous0 (869638) *

        But imagine the morning commute.

        Actually, many historians argue that the Black Death did actually help a lot of former serfs and peasants finally own land and actually advance themselves quite well in the aftermath.

        On second thought, everyone stop washing their hands.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by oldmac31310 (1845668)
          What happened was labour was in short supply so the peasants got to name their price for the work they did. Previously they were considered lucky to have a roof over their heads and enough to eat.
    • by ByOhTek (1181381)

      I started reading your post, and halfway through the first line, I expected to read an annoying article on chiropractic care, and subluxations. Obviously, didn't look at the author, just the text.

      I was pleasantly surprised when no such garbage came up.

      *ahem*
      Anyway, people do panic a bit much these days. As far as hygiene back then goes - people didn't have a good reason, or their culture, the experiences, needed to provide them with the knowledge that such hygienic behavior is important.

    • If humanity is to survive, we must pledge to eliminate all carbon dioxide from our atmosphere by 2030

      Isn't that going a bit far?

      Trees breathe it in, we breathe it out, we aren't going to get rid of ALL of it, nor do we want to.

      Or perhaps you were trying to be funny?

      • by nedlohs (1335013)

        Or perhaps you were trying to be funny?

        Ya think!?

        Sherlock Holmes is in awe.

        • by Tsingi (870990)

          Or perhaps you were trying to be funny?

          Ya think!?

          Sherlock Holmes is in awe.

          Sherlock Holmes doesn't live on the eastern seaboard. If he did, he wouldn't think your jokes are any funnier than I do.

    • Actually even that description doesn't do it justice. Imagine that up to 80% of your town dies, and within weeks at that. Mortality differed from place to place and outbreak to outbreak, but generally, the tighter packed a place was, the bigger the casualties. At the larger scale of villages mortality was lower -- though even there, many villages were COMPLETELY wiped out -- but in cities, getting casualties between 50% and 75% of the total population in an outbreak wasn't unusual.

      Oh, and in excruciating pa

    • by H0p313ss (811249)

      Very well said sir. Never a mod point when you need one.

    • by dkleinsc (563838) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @12:53PM (#37255146) Homepage

      Of course, there are still some third-world shitholes where people think that a witch-doctor rubbing feces on an open wound will ward off the evil spirits.

      I'm not sure where you got that image of how those sorts of shaman/healer types do their jobs. They'll usually go with attempts at herbal treatment that have a chance of working that is slightly better than a placebo, based on learning from previous generations who figured out that rubbing feces on wounds was a good way to cause the patient to get even sicker and die. They tend to pick their herbs for apparent effectiveness, and often have chosen things with the right chemical compound or physiological effects, just not at as high a concentration or as good a delivery system as Western medicines.

      Those healers from isolated tribes today, and our cavemen before us, were the brainy folks in their societies, and there's no reason to think they were any stupider than we are. They are just working with very limited tools, and are quite ignorant.

      • While there's some truth to that, it is hardly foolproof and the feces thing is actually still true in some cases. Traditional medicine made (and makes) many errors.

        "Tetanus of the newborn occurs through contamination of the umbilical stump (and occasionally as a complication of circumcision). Neonatal tetanus is common in some cultures that have practices that encourage infection. Some tribes in the Loralai district of Pakistan practice 'bundling,' in which the lower abdomen of the newborn is smeared wi

      • by Xest (935314)

        I think you and him are talking about different people.

        You're talking about the people who did figure out new methods of healing through the years, whilst ignoring those who did manage to fuck up and kill more people than they helped.

        He's talking about the shit crazy "witch doctors" who still exist in places like Africa who claim they can produce cures, but first they need the limb of an albino African...

        http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/nov/16/tanzania-humanrights [guardian.co.uk]

        You're both right- you're right about th

    • the Black Death was ugly. Imagine half the population of your entire city or town dying off in 1 or 2 years. Nasty business that.

      While the psychological trauma must have been horriffic, in aggregate economic terms Europe actually went through an upswing in the generation after the Black Death, believe it or not. Daily life improved for peasants in particular, who suddenly found their labor in great demand (both because there were fewer of them and there was a sudden surfeit of unclaimed land).

    • by bberens (965711)
      Okay, so I didn't see what your name was, but I was totally expecting your second paragraph to discuss the benefits of chiropractic care with respect to the immune system. Dr. Bob has trolled me one too many times. :(
    • The Littles always cite the Black Death and 1918 pandemic [wikipedia.org] as if that's what we could expect from a pandemic today--all without noting the MASSIVE improvements in sanitation, medical science, vaccine research, etc. that make this scale of pandemic highly unlikely in the modern era. Black Death -- bacterial -- likely not a big deal in the age of antibiotics. 1918 pandemic -- viral -- the healthier you are, the more likely it is that your own cytokine storm will kill you -- might be even more
    • by aliquis (678370)

      all without noting the MASSIVE improvements in sanitation, medical science, vaccine research, etc. that make this scale of pandemic highly unlikely in the modern era.

      Except you use antibiotics in your animals over in the US.

      I read that around half your meat and poultry Staphylococcus aureus [wikipedia.org] which is quite awesome and well protected as is. But what's worse is that half of those was the Methicillin resistant variant [wikipedia.org].

      I'm not educated enough for in fast new vaccines can be made for viruses and if they can for all. Considering how far they have come with HIV I guess it's not always that easy.

      I read antibiotics had increased our average life span by decades. But what do you d

    • by cdrguru (88047)

      Ha. The Black Death seems to have mutated somewhat or humans have become more resistant in the last thousand years or so. It is clearly much less of a threat than it was in 1350.

      However, today we have far less isolation than we did in 1350. It was possible for a community to simply close itself off from the world for a period of time. It was also possible that in some parts of Europe there just weren't any infected visitors coming to call. Not so today.

      I recently read a book where there were three outb

      • by jimicus (737525)

        However, today we have far less isolation than we did in 1350. It was possible for a community to simply close itself off from the world for a period of time.

        They didn't do a very good job of it. It's estimated that 30-60% of Europe's population was killed.

      • by Raenex (947668)

        I agree, it's only a matter of time before something horrific pops up and gives the modern world something comparable to the Black Death.

    • by ivoras (455934)

      The Black Death could have been stopped in its tracks if those 14th-century peasants had even an inkling of the basic medical/sanitation knowledge that even the biggest idiots among us know today. Basic stuff like "Wash your hands regularly," "Cover your mouth when you cough," and "Don't let your goddamned flea-infested farm animals wander around through your living area, moron" are surprisingly recent bits of common sense that the developed world today takes for granted. Of course, there are still some third-world shitholes where people think that a witch-doctor rubbing feces on an open wound will ward off the evil spirits. But even those places usually have a FEW among them with some basic sense (and soap).

      Unfortunately for the peasants and the third-worlders, there are some huge technological prereqisites:

      • You need clean water to wash hands and wounds with - the majority of surface water in "black africa" is contaminated - not by Evil Western Chenicals but by feces and germs
      • Covering your mouth when caughing is well and good but to have any resemblance of general care and isolation (i.e. hospitals) you need something to cover your mouth *with*, ranging from clean cloth (see previous issue) to gauzes, bandages
    • by tgd (2822)

      There are five to six billion people living in parts of the world without the kind of care you are talking about.

      And, we have jets.

      The reality is, a disease that rapidly kills and spreads easily (like Black Death) could easily wipe out hundreds of millions of people today. BD killed so quickly that infections were self-limiting. Now, it can spread far further than your local village before people even start showing symptoms.

    • by sgt scrub (869860)

      Imagine half the population of your entire city or town dying off in 1 or 2 years. Nasty business that.

      Wouldn't that depend on where you live and if you care about the people? Try, "Imagine half the population of your entire congress dying off in 1 or 2 years". I'll bet you get more than a few cheers.

    • by jpapon (1877296)
      How about an airborne pathogen that remains dormant in it's host for 2 years, then suddenly goes wild and kills the host? I'd say that, according the Bacon's law, most of humanity would die off quite rapidly after the first death occurred. You can't take measures against a disease you don't know exists...
    • by Mashiki (184564)

      The black death as it exists isn't coming back. That won't stop a new strain from popping up due to antibiotic use(including Triclosan and cousins) from dooming us all. And yes, triclosan and other products will doom us all unless you fuckwits stop using it. I've posted the studies before, you can use google on your own time and read the papers showing that products like it, push bacteria to develop a natural immunity to antibiotics.

      Though in the black death thing, you're pretty much fucked unless you're

    • by TheCarp (96830)

      However.... while they say familiarity breeds contempt, I think it is hardly the case. Familiarity breeds acceptance.

      If your city has been ravaged by plague before, maybe you have seen it...maybe your parents just told you the horrors of when it last happened. We got "ring around the rosies" from it... if it seems common, people come to accept it.

      It has been noted, for example, that the drop in child mortality rates seems to have also sensitized people to it. Now, if your child dies early and sudden, you ma

    • I know I watched a show that basically was saying that the environment we lived in was so bad back then, that it was the big difference, particularly the water.

      In London, everyone just tossed their garbage, piss, and shit in the street, that combined with all the industrial runoff, and animal waste to fester in the river. The river that everyone drank from.

      Some study was done with numbers collected from the time, showing that certain areas had far less victims. It was suggested that these areas, which all s

  • "...But the sequences also suggest that the strains of bacteria we see today may be different from the ones that rampaged through Europe."

    Uh, "may" be different? Is there anyone in academia even remotely questioning this? Bacteria replicate in a matter of hours. How many generations of bacteria have turned over(read mutated) in the last few hundred years? This should not come as a surprise to anyone really.

    • Not necessarily (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Moraelin (679338) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @01:11PM (#37255342) Journal

      Well, the actual question is: exactly how different. Yes, it's clear that some mutations are inevitable, but unless there's some clear evolutionary pressure, you may still find a bacterium that works by and large just like its ancestors.

      Now it may seem that for a parasitic bacterium, not killing its host would be an advantage. And indeed in some other bacteria we can see a sort of a survival-of-the-sickest kind of selection.

      But this is a soil bacterium. If it ends up in some host and kills it, worst that can happen is that it ends up back in the soil. It has nothing to lose by killing its host, and in fact everything to gain, since once the host is dead there's no more immune system killing the bacteria.

      This kind of bacteria that have nothing to lose by killing the host are the most deadly and dangerous. Not just this, but see for example cholera too. That's a bacterium that not only has nothing to gain by peacefully staying inside you and not killing you, but is actually trying to get out of your body ASAP. Whether you live or die in the process, meh, it makes no difference for that one.

      Additionally, for Y Pestis, the capability of clotting blood and forming colonies that plug blood vessels actually helped it spread too. The same mechanism makes it plug the stomach of fleas. The flea then will literally starve to death no matter how much blood it sucks, and driven by hunger, will go infect another host too.

      So we have a bacterium for which the plasmid that kills its host:

      1. isn't detrimental to the bacterium, since it can live just as well in a dead host or in soil, and

      2. is actually beneficial to the bacterium, since it makes fleas spread it around.

      That's one tough combo to evolve out of. There is no real survival benefit in losing those genes.

      So while, yes, you would expect that bacteria can and will mutate in time, but it's not clear at all why this one would change in exactly that aspect.

      Yet something seems to have changed. What and why? Those are the questions.

      • I would probably vote for obsolescence. If the bacteria aren't being picked up en masse by silly humans who don't clean their food properly when they pull it from the fields, then the pressure for maintaining the human-killing equipment is pretty mediocre. It simply falls into disrepair and mutates into pseudogenes and non-functional gene products.
      • There's also the hypothesis that "success" for an infectious organism is to maximize the number of people that get infected. In that case, it is possible for a disease to be too virulent: if too many victims die too fast, the spread eventually peters out. If that's a valid argument, then it's possible that a Y. pestis variant that is not so lethal would eventually crowd out the Middle Ages' version. Proponents of the hypothesis usually point to rhinoviruses as being nearly ideal. They're highly infectio
  • So Kivrin Engle would indeed survive? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doomsday_Book_(novel) [wikipedia.org]
  • I just spent a week running from earthquakes and hurricanes, then got home to feel like ... black death. Convenient that the sequence is now complete so I can confirm my suspicion of the most interesting vacation ever.
  • Seanan McGuire has summed up the reasons why some people believe (or believed now?) that the Black Death may have been caused by something other than Yersinia Pestis in lyrical form. [seananmcguire.com] (Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be any recordings of her performing it on YouTube.)

    This latest bit of research may have disproved the theory but it's still a fun song, and how often do you get to hear someone singing about epidemiology? :)
  • The Little Age was still in its early phases, but less unclouded sunshine from shorter growing seasons probably meant less calories and vitamin C for less healthy bodies, along with even lower immunity from even more inadequate vitamin D levels. Overpopulated areas were no doubt tinderboxes, waiting for the slightest bacterial innovation.

You are an insult to my intelligence! I demand that you log off immediately.

Working...