Anthropological genetics professor offers insight into Black Death
The Scientist’s Tia Ghose recently took a close look at a study of the bacterium responsible for the Black Death, published in the August 29 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She interviewed Arizona State University anthropologist and genetics specialist Anne Stone for her take on the researchers’ conclusions.
The findings confirmed those of an earlier study, which showed that the strain present during the Black Death did not fall into any of the major groups that exist today but was instead a more basal form.
Stone, a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said, “It’s a really interesting piece of work and really nicely done.” She added, “Understanding the evolution of the bacterium is important for potentially predicting what future outbreaks might be like and why some outbreaks are worse than others.”
Though the Black Death bacterium – which wiped out a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century – appears extinct, other forms of the pathogen Yersinia pestis continue to take lives each year.
An important aspect of the study was trying to determine what made the Black Death so lethal.
The researchers looked at the part of the genome that is most likely to provide information about virulence. Surprisingly, it doesn’t differ much from today’s strains.
“It may be that other parts of the genome were important for making the pandemic particularly virulent,” Stone suggested. She noted that the exceptionally high mortality rate may also be attributed to the squalid living conditions and negligible or negligent health care of the time.