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Scientists Recover Black Death RNA From Exhumed Victims

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  • by drainbramage (588291) on Friday October 14, 2011 @07:10PM (#37719822)

    I'm not dead yet!

  • Nice.... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jawtheshark (198669) *
    Just in time to start Zombie Apocalypse for Halloween. Seriously, though, I always assumed that the plague was a bacterium and it would be easy to combat it with antibiotics. Ouch, clearly not so. Seems that an outbreak even today could do severe damage.
    • Re:Nice.... (Score:5, Informative)

      by ColdWetDog (752185) on Friday October 14, 2011 @07:14PM (#37719886) Homepage

      Way to go Slashdot! Stick with computers

      The scientists isolated the DNA (not RNA) of the Bacterium (not virus) that caused the "Black Death" (the Plague).

      That's like saying Ford recently upgraded their turboprop so it can run on liquid nitrogen.

      Arrrgh!

      • My bad, I thought it was a virus and posted it as RNA and virus, instead of DNA, bacterium. At least it's consistent!

        • by Anonymous Coward

          RIF=Reading is Fundamental

          The very link you cite has both DNA and the genus and species of the bacterium stated clearly in the article.

          • the fact that the editors green lighted this with no checking whatsoever is disturbing to say the least. Oh wait a second, this is slashdot! no editors and no journalistic integrity whatsoever! carry on.

        • Re:Nice.... (Score:4, Informative)

          by kaliann (1316559) on Friday October 14, 2011 @08:01PM (#37720304)

          Also, viruses can be DNA or RNA.

        • by nashv (1479253)

          No. It isn't. To anyone who knows a little biology, it was misleading on a couple of levels.

          • 1. Viruses can be DNA or RNA based.
          • 2. Bacteria also have both DNA and RNA
          • 3. There was some doubt about what the identity of the Plague pathogen was - if it turned out to be a virus, it would be newsworthy.
          • 4. If one knew, the plague pathogen was bacterium, isolating RNA from a bacterium would be a world-first and an immense technical feat. Hell, even the idea that RNA survives that long opens all sorts of pandora's b
        • by Glothar (53068)

          There are DNA and RNA viruses.

          I actually clicked the story because I was shocked that anyone could:

          1. Re-create a bacteria from RNA
          2. Recover usable RNA after a couple centuries at non-ideal temperatures

          No offense, but it was so non-sensical, I assumed that it was the media butchering science again.

      • by jd (1658)

        You mean they didn't? *duck*

        What's interesting is that the Black Death is a mutation of a perfectly harmless bacterium that is common in the soil and that modern versions of the Plague are very mild variants of the Black Death - suggesting that further mutations seriously reduced its potency. A good thing.

        • I read once where this (reduced potency over time) is typical.

          When an infectious agent jumps species, it's typically extremely virile and will easily kill the host. This puts selection pressure on the agent to be less fatal, so that the agent has more time to spread among the available hosts.

          For example, the flu killed 20% of those infected in 1918, but today it's mostly an annoyance.

          Probably the same thing here. A mutation results in a particularly virulent strain, which lessens in potency over time.

          • by harley78 (746436)
            you're kinda sorta wrong. the 1918 flu is different than today's flu in that it's mutated; but don't think it's a direct descendant. The 1918 flu it's now thought, initiated a cytokine storm in otherwise virile infectants. which led to death by immune response; and not the virus itself. Y. pestis is different in that as the article states, the hypothesis is that the rearrangement of genes is what causes it's specific "virulance". Oh, and 14th century Europe was a dirty, dirty place. This bacterium is alive
        • by symbolset (646467) *

          I pondered for quite a while expanding on the following but you're a bright person well grounded in logic, math and history and have been here long enough to build a whole story out of two little words. By being a little bit obscure I may escape accusations of panic-mongering:

          Drunkard's walk.

          • by jd (1658)

            You are correct in your reference. Random mutations can - and will - occur all the time. Eventually, such a mutation will be deadly to humans. In the case of this particular pathogen, it may find other ways to be deadly or the reverse mutations (which have an equal probability of happening) could arise.

            However, I'm less concerned with Plague as far as random mutations are concerned. ANY bacterium can evolve to become deadly and the soil has a lot of bacteria. We haven't sequenced more than a tiny fraction a

        • Re:Nice.... (Score:5, Informative)

          by ColdWetDog (752185) on Friday October 14, 2011 @08:01PM (#37720294) Homepage

          No, what is interesting, according to TFA is that

          The bacterium that causes plague, Yersinia pestis, is still highly virulent today but has different symptoms, leading some historians to doubt that it was the agent of the Black Death.

          Those doubts were laid to rest last year by detection of the bacterium’s DNA in plague victims from mass graves across Europe. With the full genome now in hand, the researchers hope to recreate the microbe itself so as to understand what made the Black Death outbreak so deadly.

          So far, the evidence points more toward the conditions of the time than to properties of the bacterium itself. The genome recovered from the East Smithfield victims is remarkably similar to that of the present-day bacterium, says the research team, led by Kirsten I. Bos of McMaster University in Ontario and Johannes Krause of the University of Tübingen in Germany.

          So the bug is pretty much the same genetically and presumably biologically. What is likely different is the host. At the time of the Black Death there was widespread famine. It is certainly plausible that Y. pestis is much more pathologic in a weak, starving host living in awful non hygienic circumstances. This is a testable hypothesis but hopefully no one is ever going to do that experiment.

          • At the time of the Black Death there was widespread famine. It is certainly plausible that Y. pestis is much more pathologic in a weak, starving host living in awful non hygienic circumstances. This is a testable hypothesis but hopefully no one is ever going to do that experiment.

            Pretty much sounds like East Africa today.

            • by nedlohs (1335013)

              Good luck getting ethics board approval for infecting a bunch of East African to see what happens.

              • I hope you don't think that I was suggesting that someone should release plague in East Africa on purpose but i was pointing out how potentially devastating a natural out-break would likely be.

              • by Type44Q (1233630)

                Good luck getting ethics board approval for infecting a bunch of East African to see what happens.

                Whatever you say, dude! As if the kind of people (eugenicists and their NWO ilk) capable of pulling such an atrocious stunt - as they've consistently shown themselves - would run it by an ethics board first. ROFL!

                Seriously, drink your kool-aid (ahem... flouridated [greaterthings.com] tap water [truth11.com]) and be sure not to visit this page [shirleys-w...s-cafe.com].

                Go on, take the blue pill; trust me, it's a lot less disturbing...

                • by nedlohs (1335013)

                  The topic isn't about eugenicists and the NWO, it's about a scientist running an experiment to test an hypothesis.

          • by adolf (21054)

            This is a testable hypothesis but hopefully no one is ever going to do that experiment.

            If only the Nazis had won the war, such experimentation would be a foregone conclusion.

            (And Godwin [wikipedia.org] wins again, perhaps in record time.)

            • by jd (1658)

              They were planning on using biological and chemical weapons as part of their invasion of Britain, so it would have been long before they'd won.

          • It is certainly plausible that Y. pestis is much more pathologic in a weak, starving host living in awful non hygienic circumstances. This is a testable hypothesis but hopefully no one is ever going to do that experiment.

            Forget the "starved". The Black Death got people regardless of wealth. In Hamburg for example, 16 of 21 City Council members died - certainly no poor people.

            Also, the pest affected different areas quite differently. See this map [wikimedia.org] (green: no or minor occurrences of the Black Death). As far as I can see, the areas unaffected by the pest were not special in any way (not specially poor or uninhabited or anything) as far as my - admittedly small - knowledge goes.

            Maybe someone there got the "hygiene" or "quarant

            • "the areas unaffected by the pest were not special in any way"

              They obviously are. The entry point of the Black Death was the Mediterranean basin from the oriental side, Italy and Spanish shores. From there on, its spread is a function of distance, population density and commercial exchanges.

            • Mod parent up! The Black Death had no discernable target of rich or poor. It also spread differently in the past: back then it seems to have been airborne, and there are no reports (that's NONE) about mass die-off of rats like we saw in the 20th and 21st centuries.

              The kicker is that diseases and their hosts co-evolve. We evolve immunities and tolerances, they evolve new tricks and less of a tendency to kill off their food supply (read: us). The DNA may be remarkably similar between the old and current versi

            • Also, the pest affected different areas quite differently. See this map [wikimedia.org]

              The Green areas should not be green. Data about mortality rates is incomplete. Large unaffected areas are a myth. http://past.oxfordjournals.org/content/211/1/3.full?keytype=ref&ijkey=loGlgExG0zZlz49#F1 [oxfordjournals.org]

            • by hawkfish (8978)

              Also, the pest affected different areas quite differently. See this map [wikimedia.org] (green: no or minor occurrences of the Black Death). As far as I can see, the areas unaffected by the pest were not special in any way (not specially poor or uninhabited or anything) as far as my - admittedly small - knowledge goes.

              Maybe someone there got the "hygiene" or "quarantaine" thing correctly, though.

              Nice map - thanks.

              I have heard it claimed that part of the reason for the pogroms against Jews during the plague was that Jews would kill rats (because they were unclean) and this led to lower plague rates in Jewish communities - which of course led to accusations that they were responsible (as they say, no good deed goes unpunished). Not that a reason was needed given the attitudes of the time...

              I was reminded of this because of the large green area in central Poland. IIRC there were many Jewish communit

              • by hawkfish (8978)

                I have heard it claimed that part of the reason for the pogroms against Jews during the plague was that Jews would kill rats (because they were unclean) and this led to lower plague rates in Jewish communities - which of course led to accusations that they were responsible (as they say, no good deed goes unpunished). Not that a reason was needed given the attitudes of the time...

                I was reminded of this because of the large green area in central Poland. IIRC there were many Jewish communities in that part of the world and I wondered if it could have kept the infection rate down.

                Link [jewishhistory.org] on the subject. Maybe not very scholarly, but quite informative.

          • by Type44Q (1233630)

            ...in a weak, starving host living in awful non hygienic circumstances. This is a testable hypothesis but hopefully no one is ever going to do that experiment.

            Your average under-nourished (however greatly overfed) Westerner, complete with their wiped-out intestinal flora (antibiotic, anyone?) and constantly-sterilized environment (care for some hand sanitizer? How about a blast or two from that automatic disinfecting aerosol air-freshener), would seem like the perfect candidate to recreate these conditions: devastating plague, here we come - and be sure to hold the raw garlic (it could greatly skew the results, to say the least)...

          • Hooray, someone actually read the article and *didn't* fail the comprehension test. Most comments that I've seen so far show that supposedly intelligent people don't understand that you should read an article and understand it before commenting. (Not a troll, please read my previous comments on this story before modding... although this may be a sad reflection on the current state of /.)
        • Yes, it's pretty interesting. It's not a simple mutation. The relatively harmless soil bacteria picked up a plasmid (sort of like picking up a viral infection) and dropped a gene. If I remember right, it also rearranged the ordering of several genes on the chromosome. Together, these changes made the bacteria harmful. Calling the plasmid a virus is not technically correct, but it's a decent analogy. A plasmid is a piece of DNA (usually a loop) that "infects" a bacteria. It's not replicated through exactly
        • by HiThere (15173)

          It depends on how it spreads. If it can spread better by having the infected party up and ambling around infecting others, then it evolves to reduce the symptoms. This is common. But there are other diseases that spread more effectively by rapidly killing the host, and spreading from the corpse.

          There's even at least one that spreads by having the infected party behave in a dangerous manner, in hopes of being eaten by the proper predator. (A cat in the example I'm thinking of. Which can only complete it

        • Actually the article suggested that despite the mutations, environmental factors (malnutrition etc) had a greater influence on the outcome of infection.
          • by jd (1658)

            Yeah, the difference is I've been reading a lot of the articles on the subject and they all say something slightly different. There was no historically discernible difference between the fatalities in rich and poor, so malnutrition is unlikely to have been a significant influence. That doesn't mean environmental factors weren't a greater influence, it just means that particular factor can be ruled out.

            (Actually, the North of England has oral traditions to the effect that well-water protected villages from t

      • by gobulin (593783)
        This ought to turn out well...
      • by sfm (195458)

        So, can we apply for government cash back on this new Ford ?

    • by mikael (484)

      Combine that with flea-bites and you would have a real problem. Fleas don't just puncture the skin, they also inject anti-coagulants as well as whatever else they have picked up from whatever else they have bitten. So wounds don't heal and continue to itch.

      They are still a problem in some European countries. Some hospitals still insist on giving patients a shower with iodine soap and shampoo before surgery. The side effect is that it temporarily dyes the patient yellow.

    • OK, I want to say RTFA... but I doubt it would help. The article indicates that other factors were in play, like malnutrition and poor living conditions. It's effectively indicating that with only 97 'units' of DNA out of 4.6 million altered/mutated/changed since the 'original' Black Death that environmental factors had a far greater influence than has been acknowledged previously. It *is* a bacterium, it *is* relatively easy to combat with anti-biotics.
  • by Flyerman (1728812) on Friday October 14, 2011 @07:13PM (#37719864) Journal

    I'm sure this will end well.

    • by gijoel (628142)
      I hear that. First they'll clone the plague, then they'll open a Black Death theme park. Then some shady bastard will turn off the electric fence in the rain, and then the next thing you know you're being chased through the gift shop by Black Death zombies.
  • not RNA, not a virus (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Yersinia pestis is a bacterium, not a virus. The article clearly describes stitching together DNA, not RNA. Important little details...

  • Burke: "Look, those two specimens are worth millions to the bioweapons division. Now, if you're smart, we can both come out of it as heroes and we'll be set up for life."
    Ripley: "You're crazy Burke, you know that? You really think that you can get a dangerous organism like that past ICC quarantine?"
    Burke: "How can they impound it if they don't know about it?"
    • by ogdenk (712300)

      LOL Black Death hasn't had a chance since we found a certain funky mold. Bioweapons potential probably little to laughable.

      I'm sure the stuff in the bioweapons labs would eat Black Death for lunch before promptly turning their attention on your juicy nervous and immune systems before causing you to vomit, defecate, bleed and scream out of every orifice. All of the above. All at once.

      The only use I could think of is to generate a 'cillin resistant version of the centuries old classic to help out some poor

  • Dear Editors (Score:5, Informative)

    by TubeSteak (669689) on Friday October 14, 2011 @07:30PM (#37720022) Journal

    Dear Editors,

    A NY Times link that looks like this will always take you to a login page:
    http://www.nytimes.com/glogin?URI=http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/13/science/13plague.html [nytimes.com]

    A NY Times link that looks like this should not take you to a login page:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/13/science/13plague.html [nytimes.com]

    Please consider editing the summaries accordingly.

    Most Respectfully,
    Tubesteak

  • TFA here [slashdot.org]
  • It was a bacteria not virus that caused it...

  • Resistance (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anachragnome (1008495) on Friday October 14, 2011 @08:11PM (#37720376)

    It isn't what you have, it's what you don't have--resistance.

    Perhaps the recovered virus DNA researchers are looking at is similar to the modern Yersinia pestis because it is the same critter--just somewhat removed in ancestry. It doesn't take many changes in our own biological functions to acquire a resistance to Yersinia pestis. That alone can explain the difference in symptoms between the Black Plague victims and victims of the virus today. There is good evidence that such a thing occurs. Syphilis is a good example.

    Syphilis existed in the Old World, before contact with the Americas, but only in a relatively mild form--it was more of a skin condition then anything else. It wasn't until European contact with the area now know as The Guianas, in South America, that the Old World was re-exposed to syphilis--only this time it was a long-lost cousin of syphilis that had changed over the course of time, the time it took for humanity to spread around the globe and carry it into the New World. Europeans had not developed a resistance to this long-lost cousin and suffered horribly. The symptoms were very different from the syphilis they were used to back home--bone deformities that crushed organs and brains and swiftly killed the host. Killing the host is not always a good evolutionary tactic for long-term survival of a species. Not long after this cousin virus was "brought home", Europeans began to develop resistances to this cousin eventually leading to what we have today--a sexually-transmitted disease that rarely kills it's host, and based on past symptoms, is relatively benign. Jared Diamond wrote extensively on the subject.

    There is the distinct possibility that it was not merely a matter of us developing a resistance, but rather the syphilis evolving is such a way as to not kill it's host and thereby increase the chance for survival. Maybe that is all that has happened with Yersinia pestis--it stopped killing it's meal-ticket. A trillion trillion syphilis virii can't ALL be wrong.

    All of that being said, I think the researchers are trying to find the specific changes in genes that changed the symptoms of the virus--if they can determine that, they can then take that knowledge and attempt to force such changes in other modern virii and possibly lessen, or end altogether, the symptoms of said virii. It is a little like taking two images of a piece of the night sky, a month apart, and looking for what changed--the changes are more apparent when scaled differently in terms of time. These guys are literally digging up past "images" of Yersinia pestis.

    • by wierd_w (1375923)

      Syphillis is not viral. It too is bacterial, caused by spirochetes.

      http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syphilis [wikipedia.org]

      • "Syphillis is not viral. It too is bacterial, caused by spirochetes."

        I stand corrected.

        But, the substance of what I stated is still true--evolutionary changes are result of environmental pressures, regardless of organism, and evolutionary tactics can be shared amongst widely varied organisms. As such, the same mechanics that resulted in syphilis being "re-introduced", and the resulting differences in symptoms could very well be occurring in Yersinia pestis as well. The fact that both organisms share the sa

        • by harley78 (746436)
          no shit? Biologists are cracking up while eating cheese and drinking beer to these /. comments. At least Bio people know about tech too.
    • by jgrahn (181062)

      It isn't what you have, it's what you don't have--resistance.

      Perhaps the recovered virus DNA researchers are looking at is similar to the modern Yersinia pestis because it is the same critter--just somewhat removed in ancestry. It doesn't take many changes in our own biological functions to acquire a resistance to Yersinia pestis. That alone can explain the difference in symptoms between the Black Plague victims and victims of the virus today.

      ISTR a TV documentary where they showed that each plague outbreak (and there have been many, in Europe too) had less and less casualties, probably due to resistance.

  • The Black Plauge was caused by bacteria. Why does the modern variety of it vary in genetic structure, you ask? It's called evolution.
  • The main discovery (Score:5, Informative)

    by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Friday October 14, 2011 @10:16PM (#37721186) Homepage
    The main discovery according to Abbie Smith http://scienceblogs.com/erv/2011/10/black_death_not_initiated_by_a.php [scienceblogs.com] is what DNA this did not contain. There was some speculation that there might be some plasmid (a small circular strand of DNA which bacteria can share with each other or sometimes pick up from the environment) that was making the plague more deadly. This result shows that that wasn't the case. The Black Plague was deadly due to lack of antibiotics, lack of sanitation, and lack of resistance. This means we don't need to be that worried about some sort of super-strain of plague coming back to bite us. It also helps underscore how much basic hygiene and sanitation help in reducing disease.
  • This could be very interesting for HIV. There seems to be a genetic link between HIV resistance and the plague. A study of the Black Death's DNA from way back could perhaps shed more light on this phenomenon and how we can use it for potential gene therapy. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/03/050325234239.htm [sciencedaily.com] http://qjmed.oxfordjournals.org/content/99/8/497.full [oxfordjournals.org]
    • by harley78 (746436)
      you're really reaching for karma dude. This wont help with the CCR5-32 mutation at all. We already know everything about the mutation/receptor/why/Y.pestis etc.....No gene therapy for you!
  • I have never been comfortable with this sort of thing. It may be that I've seen too many movies.

  • "Scientists have recovered the RNA of the virus that caused the plague by digging through an English mass grave, and compiling [from several partial examples] the genetics of the virus. Though the plague still persists, scientists have believe the ancient strain was different due to a different onset of symptoms."

    You want to correct that, it is a bacteria and not a virus (you can find this in the very article you mention).
  • While the poster cites a very interesting article, the original posting contains two glaring errors. Specifically, the paper describes sequencing the genomic and plasmid DNA of the a specific strain of the species Yersinia pestis (a reasonably close relative of the 'dreaded' E. coli, BTW). So, no RNA! Not a Virus! The Nature paper, itself, uses currently conventional methods and draws very plausible conclusions based on our knowledge of Enterobacterial evolution. A review of the Yersinia literat
  • Slashdot: yesterday's news, today!

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