A genetic history of the plague

Each year, 4 million people visit Yosemite National Park in California. Most bring back photos, postcards and an occasional sunburn. But two unlucky visitors this summer got a very different souvenir. They got the plague.

This quintessential medieval disease, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and transmitted most often by fleabites, still surfaces in a handful of cases each year in the western United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its historical record is far more macabre. The plague of Justinian from 541 to 543 decimated nearly half the population in the Mediterranean, while the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed one in every three Europeans.

Now researchers are beginning to reveal a surprising genetic history of the plague. A rash of discoveries show how just a small handful of genetic changes — an altered protein here, a mutated gene there — can transform a relatively innocuous stomach bug into a pandemic capable of killing off a large fraction of a continent.

The most recent of these studies, published in June, found that the acquisition of a single gene named plagave Y. pestis the ability to cause pneumonia, causing a form of plague so lethal that it kills essentially all of those infected who don’t receive antibiotics. In addition, it is also among the most infectious bacteria known. “Yersinia pestis is a pretty kick-ass pathogen,” said Paul Keim, a microbiologist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. “A single bacterium can cause disease in mice. It’s hard to get much more virulent than that.”

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Author: Carrie Arnold is a freelance health and science writer living in Virginia.

Image: A lab assistant performs an experiment. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse.

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