An international team, led by researchers at McMaster University in Canada and the University of Tubingen in Germany, has sequenced the entire genome of the organism causing the Black Death, one of the most devastating epidemics in human history. This marks the first time that scientists have been able to draft a reconstructed genome of any ancient pathogen, and it should allow researchers to track changes in the pathogen’s evolution and virulence over time. This new work, published online on October 12, 2011 in Nature, could lead to a better understanding of modern infectious diseases. Geneticists Hendrik Poinar and Kirsten Bos of McMaster University and Johannes Krause and Verena Schuenemann of the University of Tubingen collaborated with Brian Golding and David Earn of McMaster University, Hernan A. Burbano and Matthias Meyer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and Sharon DeWitte of the University of South Carolina, among others. In a separate study published recently, the team described a novel method to extract tiny degraded DNA fragments of the causative agent of the Black Death, and showed that a specific variant of the Yersinia pestis bacterium was responsible for the plague that killed 50 million Europeans between 1347 and 1351. After this success, the next major step was to “capture” and sequence the entire bacterial genome, explains Dr. Poinar, associate professor of anthropology and director of the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre and an investigator with the Michael G. DeGroote Institute of Infectious Disease Research, also at McMaster University. “The genomic data show that this bacterial strain, or variant, is the ancestor of all modern plagues we have today worldwide. Every outbreak across the globe today stems from a descendant of the medieval plague,” he says.
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