The source of Black Death, a plague that devastated Europe in the 14th century, has finally been pinpointed thanks to an analysis of rotting bones and teeth extracted a mass burial site in London.
Until this study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, some scientists were skeptical that the incredibly deadly plague came from the Yersinia pestis bacterium, despite a fair amount of evidence that it did. The latest research is proof positive that Y pestis is to blame. Scientists took DNA from 53 bones and 43 teeth that had been buried in East Smithfield, a cemetery build preemptively in 1348 in expectation of much death.
The effort wasn't wasted: two years after the cemetery was in place, the bubonic plague had killed one-third of London's population. East Smithfield holds 2,400 of the victims stacked five deep.
The plague still exists, but it behaves much differently than it did back then. For example, today the plague is carried by rats and is contracted directly from them (or their fleas). In the 14th century, the Black Death passed from person to person, which is what made its destruction so swift. That difference among others made some scientists doubt that the same bacterium caused the disease back then and today.
Knowing that it's one and the same is important because scientists fear the bacterium could morph to become the evil satan of a pathogen it was during medieval times. But they still don't know what made the old Y Pestis so much more deadly than the modern version. If they can figure that out, they'll have a better idea of how to combat the next zombie plague.
"It's probably exceptionally important to find out what made this bug so deadly in the past," Hendrik Polinar, one of the authors of the study, told The New York Times.
Makes sense to me—someone give these scientists more money to figure it out, STAT! Look at those plague researchers. If they're willing to do that for the greater good, I'm happy for my tax money to help make their work happen. And a giant thank you to the (mostly Canadian) organizations who funded (scroll down to acknowledgements) this study.
If you are disease (or DNA) obsessed, you can also see all the DNA sequences for free online.
You can keep up with Kristen Philipkoski, the author of this post, on Twitter, Facebook, and occasionally Google+