About 1500 years ago in the year 541 A.D. in Europe, a menacing disease, the bubonic plague, spread to and killed approximately 50 million people. The plague, a fatal disease characterized by fever, chills, muscle aches, and extreme fatigue, spread from Europe to parts of North Africa and Asia leaving only destruction it its midst. Until now, scientists only knew that the ‘Black Death’ was spread by infected fleas carried around by rats. But, recent discoveries have started to unravel the mystery as to what caused this fascinating, fatal, and seemingly invincible illness.
A short time ago, in Munich, housing developers accidentally discovered a medieval burial site confirmed by archeologists to date back to the time when the plague was wracking all of Europe. Researchers than extracted the entombed teeth of the victims and isolated the trace amounts of blood in the dental pulp. With this they were able to reconstruct the DNA of the bacteria that ultimately caused the bubonic plague. Also, researchers were able to sequence the DNA (likely using PCR or some other biotechnology) and track the spread of the disease throughout Europe, Africa, China, and other Asian countries.
The result of this research was the discovery of the bacteria Yersinia pestis, now thought to be responsible for the widespread death. However, some scientists are uncertain as to if another strain of the bacteria was circulating around Europe at the same time. In a new set of research, scientists seek to examine the bodies of other earlier plague victims. The latest thinking is that Y. pestis might only be responsible for the deaths that occurred toward the end of the Bubonic plague’s reign. But, because there were millions of infected people, any research into this field accounts for only a small percentage of all the cases.
Though the plague may appear distant, deceased, and unthreatening, Y. pestis is still as alive today as it was in the 14th century. But, through the marvels of modern medicine it lies dormant and rarely is capable of infecting any human host. Though, it has made an appearance multiple times throughout history especially in overpopulated, poorly sanitized areas.
Other interesting facts about the plague include: 1) the term “Black Death” is a modern rendition of the term used at that time, “The Great Mortality”. 2) Y. pestis infects a flea by blocking its stomach and preventing it from taking in food. Finally, 3) Y. pestis exhibits itself in three forms: The Bubonic Plague (passed on by fleas and having a mortality rate of 35%-90%), the Pneumonic Plague (caused by a lung infection and having a mortality rate of 90%-95%), and the Septicemic Plague (a blood infection with no cure that has a mortality rate of nearly 100%).
Clearly a fascinating disease, the Black Plague has only recently entered the realm of scientific research. Scientist around the globe are working to unravel its mysteries and develop cures for its many forms that are still present, though rare, in modern society. With persistence, these researchers hope to discover other bacterial culprits in this widespread massacre as well as the mechanisms they employ to assert their reign.