Skeleton teeth and historical photography are retelling the story of the plague | 1/16/2018 | Staff
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New portraits of the evolution of some of history's deadliest pandemics have been created through analysis of thousands of skeletons and new collections of historical photographs—and the results could indicate how similar diseases may evolve in the future.

Genetic material from infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and the plague leave fossil traces of themselves in human teeth, and scientists have used this fact to identify fatal diseases from the past 5 000 years in mass graves and archaeological excavations all over the world.

Professor - Johannes - Krause - Director - Max

Professor Johannes Krause, director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Germany, used molecular fossil records to build a genetic profile of Yersinia pestis – the organism behind the Black Death that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. Beginning in 2013 and funded through the APGREID project, Prof. Krause's team obtained skeletons from as far afield as Africa, Asia and the Americas, as well as Europe.

After isolating remnants of bacteria from the skeletal remains, the team pieced together the bugs' evolutionary histories – demonstrating how the bacteria have changed over the centuries. They were astounded to find that they could trace Yersinia pestis back to the late stone age, and watch it emerge in two major events in European history – first as the Justinian Plague, which afflicted the eastern Roman Empire in the sixth century, and then as the Black Death in the 14th century.

Team - Pathogens - Strains - Past - Prof

The team then went on to isolate other pathogens. 'It's quite incredible how many bacterial strains we have been able to reconstruct from the past,' said Prof. Krause. 'It is very exciting. We have reconstructed first plague, then leprosy, tuberculosis, Helicobacter pylori, Salmonella enterica and we are working currently on syphilis.'

They have been able to calculate each disease's mutation rate. The faster this is, the more rapidly the bug can...
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