Black Death Genome Project

Photography of the excavations (1986-88) at East Smithfield Cemetery.

In a collaboration with Prof. Hendrik Poinar from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada we analyzed Yersinia pestis DNA from victims of the Black Death, one of the major pandemics we know from Human history. It is estimated that 30-50 % of all Europeans died during the outbreak in the 14th century.

Using novel techniques of targeted DNA enrichment, we were able to reconstruct the full genome of medieval Y. pestis strains from DNA isolated from skeletons recovered from the East Smithfield plague cemetery. DNA damage patterns present in the medieval Y. pestis DNA indicate the authentic medieval origin and therefore support that bubonic plague was at least one of the causative agents of the Black Death pandemic.

Genome wide comparisons with modern Y. pestis genomes furthermore revealed that more than 90 % of the Y. pestis strains segregating in the world today have their origin during the Black Death pandemic. A re-analysis of the of the data, including a worldwide set of more than 300 Y. pestis strains furthermore revealed strains that branch of the Y. pestis tree in the 8th century, indicating that the Justinian plague was likely also caused by Y. pestis.

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