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article imageBlack Death: Plague lingered around in unknown hidden reservoir

By Karen Graham     Jan 14, 2016 in Science
Scientists have believed for years that the Black Plague spread across Europe by way of sporadic travel, reinfecting cities in its wake. An interesting new study suggests Yersinis pestis never disappeared, but was present all the time, just hidden.
German scientists, using sophisticated technology and equipment, have concluded the bacteria that caused the Black Death, Yersinia pestis, lay hidden in some unknown host reservoir for centuries, rather than being brought in by travelers.
The great Black Death epidemic began in Europe in October 1347 when 12 Genoese trading ships docked at the Sicilian port of Messina after a long journey through the Black Sea. Almost all the sailors on board the vessels were dead, and the few who remained alive were deathly ill.
The strangest thing was the mysterious black boils covering the bodies of the sailors, oozing blood and pus. Thus was the disease given the name, "Black Death." While the city fathers ordered the ships to leave the harbor, it was too late. Over the next five years, the Black Death would kill almost one-third of Europe's population, over 20 million people.
It is generally assumed the Black Death epidemic lasted from 1347 until 1353. Interestingly, there were innumerable outbreaks thereafter, with war, famines and even weather playing a role in the spread of the bacterium.
But German scientist Holger Scholz, a molecular biologist and infectious disease researcher at Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology in Munich, Germany, and the lead author of the study, has suggested the reason for the recurrences of the disease may be that it was already present, but hidden within an unknown host.
The research team hypothesized the Yersinia pestis might have survived in Europe after the Great Plague by going to ground, remaining in an unknown host during the second plague pandemic which lasted from the 14th to the 17th centuries.
Original photograph of the triple-inhumation regarding the three male soldiers (Brandenburg  Germany...
Original photograph of the triple-inhumation regarding the three male soldiers (Brandenburg, Germany), dated to the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648).
Plos One
The study started when the researchers were analyzing the DNA from the skeletal remains of 30 plague victims found in two different grave sites in Germany. These victims were from the second plague outbreak. The team decided to compare the DNA from the German victims with previous genetic studies of skeletal remains of European plague victims from other countries.
The researchers found that five of the German plague victims had genetically identical Y. pestis bacteria to the findings in plague victims in France and Britain, even though the deaths were 300 years apart. The study points out that the DNA collected from victims of the three major pandemics of the plague all originated in Central Asia (China).
But the question on the researchers' minds was why the second pandemic lasted such a long time, three centuries — and wiped out about one-third of the continent's population, Scholz told Live Science.
Scholz cited previous studies that have suggested the plague spread along major trading routes, eventually spreading to other continents by way of the sea. Of course, rats and their infected fleas played a major role in disseminating the disease.
"Our findings show that at least one genotype of Y. pestis bacteria may have persisted in Europe over a long time period in a not-yet-identified host, possibly rodents or lice," Scholz told Live Science. This is new thinking, suggesting there might have been "good conditions" in Europe for the plague agent to survive there, he explained.
This study is not accepted by everyone in the scientific community. Addressing the question of if the plague hung around in a host between outbreaks rather than being reintroduced by trading, is provocative, and open to debate. But it does make for an interesting read.
The study, "Genotyping Yersinia pestis in Historical Plague: Evidence for Long-Term Persistence of Y. pestis in Europe from the 14th to the 17th Century," was published in the online journal Plos One on January 13, 2016.
More about yersenia pestis, Black death, unknown host, second plague pandemic, middle ages
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