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Medicine Science

The Mutant Genes Behind the Black Death 132

An anonymous reader writes: Each year, 4 million people visit Yosemite National Park in California. Most bring back photos, postcards and an occasional sunburn. But two unlucky visitors this summer got a very different souvenir. They got the plague. This quintessential medieval disease, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and transmitted most often by fleabites, still surfaces in a handful of cases each year in the western United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its historical record is far more macabre. The plague of Justinian from 541 to 543 decimated nearly half the population in the Mediterranean, while the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed one in every three Europeans.

Now researchers are beginning to reveal a surprising genetic history of the plague. A rash of discoveries show how just a small handful of genetic changes — an altered protein here, a mutated gene there — can transform a relatively innocuous stomach bug into a pandemic capable of killing off a large fraction of a continent.

The most recent of these studies, published in June, found that the acquisition of a single gene named pla gave Y. pestis the ability to cause pneumonia, causing a form of plague so lethal that it kills essentially all of those infected who don't receive antibiotics. In addition, it is also among the most infectious bacteria known. "Yersinia pestis is a pretty kick-ass pathogen," said Paul Keim, a microbiologist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. "A single bacterium can cause disease in mice. It's hard to get much more virulent than that."
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The Mutant Genes Behind the Black Death

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  • Math is fun (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 07, 2015 @08:10AM (#50678419)

    "decimated nearly half the population"

    So it killed 5%?

    • Even if you don't subscribe to the historical meaning of "decimate", namely "reduce by one tenth (through killing)", that sentence still doesn't make sense because "decimate" never means simply "kill".

      This reminds me of the Anchorman quote "60 percent of the time, it works every time."

    • Yes, I winced when I read that.

      FFS, do none of the slashdot editors own a dictionary or know how to find one online?

      • Re:Math is fun (Score:5, Informative)

        by Himmy32 ( 650060 ) on Wednesday October 07, 2015 @10:53AM (#50679577)
        Do you? http://lmgtfy.com/?q=define%3A... [lmgtfy.com]


        decimate

        verb

        1. kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of.

        "the project would decimate the fragile wetland wilderness"

        2. historical - kill one in every ten of (a group of soldiers or others) as a punishment for the whole group.
        • 2. historical - kill one in every ten of (a group of soldiers or others) as a punishment for the whole group.

          Just to be clear -- pedantic lunatics have been arguing about this word for years, but in modern English it basically never meant the same as Roman decimatio regarding military practice, except in specific historical discussions.

          Go ahead -- look up examples of people using the word back 300 years ago. You'll find that when the word is used to refer to destruction or killing, it means a LARGE AMOUNT, not just 10%. It never primarily meant decimatio in English, no matter how much the pedants want it to.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        You're complaining about the slashdot editors DIRECTLY QUOTING the article? Go complain to the Quanta Magazine editors, and I'm sure they'll have a nice time decimating your attack on their grammar.

    • Well, after seven iterations of decimation you fall below 50%.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Wednesday October 07, 2015 @08:38AM (#50678579) Journal
    Half the population survived and got immunity to it. These pathogens traveled along the trade routes by land to three large population centers, India, China and Europe, Arabia and the Silk route forming land trading routes. They will leave behind an immunized population but sustain themselves by hitting these population centers and rebounding some 20 years later to find fresh unimmunized populations. And several such iterations strengthened the immunity of all the inhabitants of the old World. In each iteration these pathogens got more and more lethal. When the sea routes opened these pathogens "seeded" multiple locations simultaneously in Europe creating very virulent outbreaks.

    When Europeans arrived to colonize the New World, their small population should have been wiped out by the diseases unfamiliar to them in the New World. But they were not. Instead the much larger (than the colonists) New World population got devastated by the Old World diseases.

    This explanation came out as a 12 page (The arrow of disease) article by Jared Diamond in 1992 in the Discover magazine. Later it was expanded into a Pulitzer winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel

    • by T.E.D. ( 34228 ) on Wednesday October 07, 2015 @09:11AM (#50678805)

      In each iteration these pathogens got more and more lethal....This explanation came out as a 12 page (The arrow of disease) article by Jared Diamond in 1992 in the Discover magazine. Later it was expanded into a Pulitzer winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel

      IIRC, Jared's argument in GG&S was that each iteration became less and less lethal. No only did the humans with better natural protections survive and have offspring, but the disease itself survived better if it didn't kill off all its hosts, so it had evolutionary pressure to be less deadly and more endemic.

      • Well, the poor choice of words is my mistake, not Diamond's. The pathogens get more and more virulent, but the arms race makes the defenses stronger and stronger. For the populations that have never been exposed to all the mutated strains of the pathogen they get more and more lethal.
    • The New World was already in decline long before colonization started.
  • "Now researchers are beginning to reveal a surprising genetic history of the plague. A rash of discoveries show how just a small handful of genetic changes â" an altered protein here, a mutated gene there â" can transform a relatively innocuous stomach bug into a pandemic capable of killing off a large fraction of a continent."

    And people say we have nothing to fear from the biohacking movement.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      No... I don't think anybody says that.

  • The plague of Justinian from 541 to 543 decimated nearly half the population in the Mediterranean, while the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed one in every three Europeans.

    Don't forget to include the American Indians. The plague decimated them, too.

  • The entire text of this article was lifted directly from the first linked article, but not attributed to its author Carrier Arnold at Quanta Magazine.

    I don't generally want to be the /. stereotype complaining about editing, but this is just flat out unethical. If you are going to post or excerpt the unmodified content of someone else's work, you should at least credit them properly. Unless the "Anonomous Reader" was actually Carrie Arnold, that was not done here.

    • by jedidiah ( 1196 )

      Except it's not an "article". It's a summary of the original content. It's basically a headline. So there's really no reason to get your panties in a bunch.

      You really don't have any standing unless YOU are secretly Carrie Arnold.

  • "We have nothing to fear but fear itself. And the Plague. That shit will kill us all!"
  • Worked on a research team back in 1980 to try and find the iron-uptake chemical in this bug. To do so we had to feed it Iron 57. Most of the team was simply hyper-aware. Some were downright jumpy.
  • Is anyone else thinking of the Captain Tripps virus from "The Stand"? Sounds just like it - get pneumonia, fever, contagious as all get out, then you die, drowning in your own snot after around 5 to 7 days. Maybe not exact, but close enough for me, anyway.

    Now all we need is for the government to weaponize it, and history follows fiction.
  • by Khyber ( 864651 ) <techkitsune@gmail.com> on Wednesday October 07, 2015 @01:28PM (#50680821) Homepage Journal

    Survivors of the Back Death seem to acquire part of a beneficial genetic mutation that gets passed on in full if they breed with another Black Death survivor - resistance to most known forms of HIV.

    http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_... [eurekalert.org]

    • by Anonymous Coward

      This has been experimentally disproven. The CCR5delta32 mutation does not protect against plague: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v427/n6975/full/427606a.html

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        They didn't say protects against plague, they said protects against HIV.

  • From TFS:

    The plague of Justinian from 541 to 543 decimated nearly half the population in the Mediterranean,

    So, it killed almost 5% of them? That's strange, I thought it would have been a lot more.

  • Bubonic Plague (Score:4, Informative)

    by tuxgeek ( 872962 ) on Wednesday October 07, 2015 @05:50PM (#50682417)

    I used to live in Tahoe.
    Occasionally during the summer months, someone would contract bubonic plague after their house cats were outside and near ground squirrel burrows.
    It is transmitted by fleas of the common ground squirrel in the area. Don't remember the species.

    The infestation of infected fleas usually gets worse in drought years.

    Plague fleas are found all over the sierras, Yosemite as well.

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