Genomics: Plague’s progress

Authors:Eddie Holmes
Media: Nature News & Views
Date: October 2011

The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. The first complete genome sequence of the causative Yersinia pestis bacterium provides a fresh perspective on plague evolution.
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Plague genome: The Black Death decoded

Authors:Ewen Callaway
Media: Nature News
Date: October 2011

The genome of a 660-year-old bacterium is revealing secrets from one of Europe’s darkest chapters.
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Scientists Solve DNA Puzzle of the Black Death

Authors:Nicholas Wade
Media: The New York Times
Date: October 2011

After the Black Death reached London in 1348, some 2,400 people were buried in East Smithfield, near the Tower of London, in a cemetery that had been prepared for the plague’s arrival. From the teeth of four of those victims, researchers have now reconstructed the full DNA of a microbe that within five years felled one- third to one-half of the population of Western Europe.
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Other media stories about this study:
Black Death genetic code cracked in work led by Canadian scientists
Researchers trace the roots of Europe’s Black Death plague
Black Death genome sequenced from 14th century DNA
Scientists sequence the full Black Death genome and find the mother of all plagues
Black Death Genetic Code “built”
Black Death Genome Revealed

A draft genome of Yersinia pestis from victims of the Black Death

Authors: K. Bos, V. Schuenemann, G.B. Golding, H. Burbano, N. Waglechner, B. Coombes, J. McPhee, S. DeWitte, M. Meyer, S. Schmedes, J. Wood, D. Earn, D.A. Herring, P. Bauer, H. Poinar, J. Krause
Journal: Nature, doi:10.1038/nature10549

Technological advances in DNA recovery and sequencing have drastically expanded the scope of genetic analyses of ancient specimens to the extent that full genomic investigations are now feasible and are quickly becoming standard1. This trend has important implications for infectious disease research because genomic data from ancient microbes may help to elucidate mechanisms of pathogen evolution and adaptation for emerging and re-emerging infections. Here we report a reconstructed ancient genome of Yersinia pestis at 30-fold average coverage from Black Death victims securely dated to episodes of pestilence-associated mortality in London, England, 1348–1350. Genetic architecture and phylogenetic analysis indicate that the ancient organism is ancestral to most extant strains and sits very close to the ancestral node of all Y. pestis commonly associated with human infection. Temporal estimates suggest that the Black Death of 1347–1351 was the main historical event responsible for the introduction and widespread dissemination of the ancestor to all currently circulating Y. pestis strains pathogenic to humans, and further indicates that contemporary Y. pestis epidemics have their origins in the medieval era. Comparisons against modern genomes reveal no unique derived positions in the medieval organism, indicating that the perceived increased virulence of the disease during the Black Death may not have been due to bacterial phenotype. These findings support the notion that factors other than microbial genetics, such as environment, vector dynamics and host susceptibility, should be at the forefront of epidemiological discussions regarding emerging Y. pestis infections.

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Antibiotic resistance is ancient

Authors: V. D’Costa, C. King, L. Kalan, M. Morar, W. Sung, C. Schwarz, D. Froese, G. Zazula, F. Calmels, R. Debruyne, G. Golding, H. Poinar, G. Wright
Journal: Nature, doi:10.1038/nature10388

The discovery of antibiotics more than 70 years ago initiated a period of drug innovation and implementation in human and animal health and agriculture. These discoveries were tempered in all cases by the emergence of resistant microbes. This history has been interpreted to mean that antibiotic resistance in pathogenic bacteria is a modern phenomenon; this view is reinforced by the fact that collections of microbes that predate the antibiotic era are highly susceptible to antibiotics. Here we report targeted metagenomic analyses of rigorously authenticated ancient DNA from 30,000-year-old Beringian permafrost sediments and the identification of a highly diverse collection of genes encoding resistance to β-lactam, tetracycline and glycopeptide antibiotics. Structure and function studies on the complete vancomycin resistance element VanA confirmed its similarity to modern variants. These results show conclusively that antibiotic resistance is a natural phenomenon that predates the modern selective pressure of clinical antibiotic use.

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