Pathogens

The End of Antiquity

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Science  17 May 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6134, pp. 788
DOI: 10.1126/science.340.6134.788-c

The Justinian Plague, which resurfaced regularly between the 6th and 8th centuries, is thought to have assisted the decline of the Roman Empire, but it has, until now, only been speculatively diagnosed as bubonic plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Using stringent ancient DNA anticontamination protocols, Harbeck et al. have genotyped new material from the early medieval graveyard at Aschheim, Bavaria, dating from the 6th century. This graveyard contained 438 individuals, often in multiple burials—a sign of crisis. The amount of bacterial material available was scant, but Y. pestis was identified from one individual using five key single-nucleotide polymorphisms identified in recent phylogenies. Genotyping confirmed this isolate as basal to isolates from the 14th-century Black Death and the modern (19th-century) third pandemic and that, like the other pandemics, it originated in China or Mongolia.

CREDIT: JAMES LE PLAMER/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

PLoS Pathogens 9, 10.1371/journal.ppat.1003349 (2013).

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