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."