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Black Death (Yersinia pestis) genomics

Ancient Epidemiology and Bacterial Physiology of the Black Death Pathogen

Team members involved: Jennifer Klunk, Melanie Kuch, Katherine Eaton
Former team members involved: Kirsti Bos
Project also in collaboration with Johannes Krause, Verena Schuenemann, Sharon DeWitte
Funding provided by: CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research)

The Black Death ravaged medieval Europe, killing a third of the continent’s population.

While it is suspected that the bacteria Yersinia pestis caused it, such potent virulence contrasts greatly with the epidemiological manifestation of modern pestis-borne plague. Why was this the case? Was the Black Death even caused by Yersinia pestis? Was it an extinct and more aggressive strain? Was it so deadly because of its particular biology, or because of the living conditions of the time? Or perhaps because of the genetic makeup of the medieval European population?

We approach these questions by sequencing microbial DNA from medieval European plague victims. The first stages of this research involved sequencing genomic regions of the 14th century Black Death pathogen from the East Smithfield burial grounds of London, England, confirming Yersinia pestis as the culprit. We are in the process of expanding this study using full population-scale genomics in order to measure temporal and geographic patterns of the pathogen’s evolution and adaptation. We also intend to characterize the complete pathogen profiles of individual medieval plague victims in order to better understand the disease interactions that may have contributed to the unique epidemiology of medieval plague.

The East Smithfield burial site (A), and skeletal sampling at the Museum of London (B).

 Both photos reproduced with permission from the Museum of London.