Researchers find 4,000-year-old plague DNA

Francis Crick Institute scientists have identified three cases of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague, in human remains.

Two of the bacteria were found in a mass grave at Charterhouse Warren in Somerset and one in a ring burial monument in Levens, Cumbria.

Working with the University of Oxford, Levens Local History Group, and the Wells and Mendip Museum, the team took small skeletal samples from 34 individuals at two sites to look for the presence of Yersinia pestis in the teeth.

This technique involves piercing the inside of the tooth and extracting the pulp, which can capture DNA remnants of infectious diseases.

Pooja Swali, lead author and PhD student at Crick, said:

“The ability to detect ancient pathogens from degraded samples from thousands of years ago is incredible. These genomes can tell us about the spread and evolutionary changes of pathogens in the past, and hopefully help us understand which genes might be important in the spread of infectious diseases.

“We see that this Yersinia pestis strain, including the genomes from this study, lost genes over time, a pattern that emerged with later outbreaks caused by the same pathogen.”

The researchers also analyzed the DNA and identified three cases of Yersinia pestis in two children thought to be 10 to 12 years old when they died, and a woman aged 35 to 45.

Based on the findings, it’s possible that three people lived at roughly the same time.

Previously, plague was described in several people from Eurasia between 5,000 and 2,500 years ago, a period spanning the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age.

But the researchers suggest this has not been seen before at this point in the UK.

The wide geographical spread suggests that this strain of plague may have been easily transmitted.

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