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      Yersinia pestis DNA from Skeletal Remains from the 6 th Century AD Reveals Insights into Justinianic Plague


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          Yersinia pestis, the etiologic agent of the disease plague, has been implicated in three historical pandemics. These include the third pandemic of the 19 th and 20 th centuries, during which plague was spread around the world, and the second pandemic of the 14 th–17 th centuries, which included the infamous epidemic known as the Black Death. Previous studies have confirmed that Y. pestis caused these two more recent pandemics. However, a highly spirited debate still continues as to whether Y. pestis caused the so-called Justinianic Plague of the 6 th–8 th centuries AD. By analyzing ancient DNA in two independent ancient DNA laboratories, we confirmed unambiguously the presence of Y. pestis DNA in human skeletal remains from an Early Medieval cemetery. In addition, we narrowed the phylogenetic position of the responsible strain down to major branch 0 on the Y. pestis phylogeny, specifically between nodes N03 and N05. Our findings confirm that Y. pestis was responsible for the Justinianic Plague, which should end the controversy regarding the etiology of this pandemic. The first genotype of a Y. pestis strain that caused the Late Antique plague provides important information about the history of the plague bacillus and suggests that the first pandemic also originated in Asia, similar to the other two plague pandemics.

          Author Summary

          Plague is a notorious and fatal human disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that is endemic in many countries around the world. Three of the most devastating pandemics in human history have been associated with plague. The second pandemic originated in central Asia and peaked in Europe between 1348 and 1350 (a period of time known as the Black Death). The third pandemic began in the Yunnan province of China in the mid-1850s and subsequently spread to Africa, the Americas, Australia, Europe, and other parts of Asia. The second and third pandemics are well documented and scientifically proven. However, the first pandemic, which began in the 6 th century and is also known as Justinianic Plague, is still a matter of controversy. Recently it has been suggested that Justinian's plague was not caused by Y. pestis. We detected Y. pestis DNA in samples obtained from multiple 6 th century skeletons from Germany. This confirms that Justinianic Plague crossed the Alps and affected local populations there, including current day Bavaria. Furthermore, we used DNA fingerprinting approaches to determine Asia as the likely geographic origin for these strains.

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          Author and article information

          Role: Editor
          PLoS Pathog
          PLoS Pathog
          PLoS Pathogens
          Public Library of Science (San Francisco, USA )
          May 2013
          May 2013
          2 May 2013
          : 9
          : 5
          [1 ]State Collection for Anthropology and Palaeoanatomy, Munich, Germany
          [2 ]Department Biology I, Anthropology and Human Genetics, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Martinsried, Germany
          [3 ]Institute for Anthropology, Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany
          [4 ]Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES), Department of Biosciences, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway
          [5 ]Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona, United States of America
          [6 ]Institute of Palaeoanatomy, Domestication Research and the History of Veterinary Medicine, Department of Veterinary Sciences, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Munich, Germany
          [7 ]Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology, Munich, Germany
          University of Notre Dame, United States of America
          Author notes

          The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

          Conceived and designed the experiments: MH IW JMR HCS BB DMW. Performed the experiments: DB LS SH KLP AT. Analyzed the data: MH LS SH IW DB BB JMR HCS DMW. Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: MH IW GG PK LZ BB HCS. Wrote the paper: MH DMW JMR HCS. Supervised the work and gave conceptual advice: LZ PK GG DMW. Discussed the results and commented at the manuscript at all stages: LS SH IW DMW.


          This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

          Page count
          Pages: 8
          This work was supported by a PhD scholarship from the Bavarian graduate scholarship program, the US Department of Homeland Security (2010-ST-108-000015; HSHQDC-10-C-00139), and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG Br 2965/1-2). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
          Research Article
          Social and Behavioral Sciences
          Biological Anthropology

          Infectious disease & Microbiology
          Infectious disease & Microbiology


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