Several historical epidemic waves of plague have been attributed to Yersinia pestis, the etiologic agent of modern plague. The most famous of these was the second pandemic which was active in Europe from AD 1347 until 1750, and began with the ‘Black Death’. The most informative method to establish the etiological nature of these ancient infections should be the analysis of ancient DNA, but the results of this method have been controversial. By combining ancient DNA analyses and protein-specific detection, this paper demonstrates that Y. pestis caused the Black Death. Furthermore, they show that at least two variants of Y. pestis spread over Europe during the second pandemic. The analysis of up to 20 diagnostic markers reveals that the two variants evolved near the time that phylogenetic branches 1 and 2 separated and may no longer exist. These results resolve a long-standing debate about the etiology of the Black Death and provide key information about the evolution of the plague bacillus and the spread of the disease during the Middle Ages.
Distinct Clones of Yersinia pestis Caused the Black Death. PLoS Pathog 6(10): e1001134. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1001134
From AD 1347 to AD 1353, the Black Death killed tens of millions of people in Europe, leaving misery and devastation in its wake, with successive epidemics ravaging the continent until the 18th century. The etiology of this disease has remained highly controversial, ranging from claims based on genetics and the historical descriptions of symptoms that it was caused by Yersinia pestis to conclusions that it must have been caused by other pathogens. It has also been disputed whether plague had the same etiology in northern and southern Europe. Here we identified DNA and protein signatures specific for Y. pestis in human skeletons from mass graves in northern, central and southern Europe that were associated archaeologically with the Black Death and subsequent resurgences. We confirm that Y. pestis caused the Black Death and later epidemics on the entire European continent over the course of four centuries. Furthermore, on the basis of 17 single nucleotide polymorphisms plus the absence of a deletion in glpD gene, our aDNA results identified two previously unknown but related clades of Y. pestis associated with distinct medieval mass graves. These findings suggest that plague was imported to Europe on two or more occasions, each following a distinct route. These two clades are ancestral to modern isolates of Y. pestis biovars Orientalis and Medievalis. Our results clarify the etiology of the Black Death and provide a paradigm for a detailed historical reconstruction of the infection routes followed by this disease.