Genetic Impact of the Black Death
The Black Death, one of the deadliest pandemics in European history, killed nearly half the population of Europe during its seven year reign. Recent improvements in archaeological and forensic research methods have shed light on the plague’s causes and long-reaching consequences.
DNA analysis of plague victims has revealed the culprit pathogen to be a strain of bacteria called Yersinia pestis, a strain of bacteria that is still active today. Since this discovery, people have wondered why this outbreak was so severe and why it hasn’t resurfaced as virulently since. The assumption, until recently, has been that this was a particularly aggressive strain of the bacteria. However, in a May 7th article published in the journal PLOS ONE, University of South Carolina anthropologist Sharon DeWitte suggests that the reason may not lay with the bacteria at all.
“Genetic analysis of 14th century Y. pestis has not revealed significant functional differences in the ancient and modern strains," DeWitte says. "This suggests that we need to consider other factors such as the characteristics of humans in order to understand changes in the disease over time."
By examining the skeletons of plague victims and survivors, DeWitte’s team made several discoveries. The pre-plague life expectancy in 14th century England was about 35 years. Post-plague populations could expect to live into their 70s and 80s. Survivors and their descendants, in addition to longer life, could also expect a healthier life. To explain these findings, Dewitte has hypothesised that the post-plague populations were a genetically heartier population.
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