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Scientists find ancient plague DNA in teeth

Reading DNA

LONDON (AP) - Scientists say two of the deadliest pandemics in history were caused by strains of the same plague and warn that new versions of the bacteria could spark future outbreaks.

Researchers found tiny bits of DNA in the teeth of two German victims killed by the Justinian plague about 1,500 years ago. With those fragments, they reconstructed the genome of the oldest bacteria known.

They concluded the Justinian plague was caused by a strain of Yersinia pestis, the same pathogen responsible for the Black Death that struck medieval Europe. The study was published online Tuesday in the journal, Lancet Infectious Diseases.

The two plagues packed quite a punch. The Justinian Plague is thought to have wiped out half the globe as it spread across Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. And the Black Death killed about 50 million Europeans in just four years during the 14th century.

"What this shows is that the plague jumped into humans on several different occasions and has gone on a rampage," said Tom Gilbert, a professor at the Natural History Museum of Denmark who wrote an accompanying commentary. "That shows the jump is not that difficult to make and wasn't a wild fluke."

The plague is usually spread to humans by rodents whose fleas carry the bacteria.

"Humans are infringing on rodents' territory, so it's only a matter of time before we get more exposure to them," Gilbert said.

Still, he and other experts doubted a modern plague epidemic would be as devastating.

"Plague is something that will continue to happen but modern-day antibiotics should be able to stop it," said Hendrik Poinar, director of the Ancient DNA Centre at McMaster University in Canada, who led the new research. He said about 200 rodent species carry the plague and could potentially infect other animals or humans.

Poinar warned that if the plague transforms into an airborne version - which can happen if the bacteria reaches the lungs and its droplets are spread by coughing - it would be much harder to snuff out. That type of plague can kill people within 24 hours of being infected.

Poinar said scientists need to sharpen their surveillance of plague in rodent populations to try averting future human infections.

"If we happen to see a massive die-off of rodents somewhere with (the plague), then it would become alarming," he said.

There are several thousand human cases of plague every year, most often in central and Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and parts of the Americas.

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victoriavnavarro January 28 2014 at 2:19 AM

ummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm im scared now

Flag Reply +2 rate up
oakfielda January 28 2014 at 11:28 AM

So only Western Europe, Austrailia, and Antartica are safe .... worrisome

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eyedocandy100 January 28 2014 at 4:00 PM

THE NAME OF THE PRESENT THREAT OF THE NEW TYP OF VACCINE IS CALLED FALKOFFS SCHMEKELCOCUS IN WHICH AT THIS TIME THERE ID NO KNOWN CURE. IT IS A QUICK ACTING BACTERIA WHICH EATS YOU FROM THE INSIDE OUT FEEDING ON MUCOUS MEMBRANES. EXTREMELY PAINFUL AND SUGGEST INDUCING PATIENT INTO COMA UNTIL DEATH.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
kcanpa2_kenneth January 28 2014 at 3:49 AM

We all have to die sooner or later. We can blame it on rats, fleas or cock roaches. But ultimately it is a human problem of poor sanitation.

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1 reply
Steve kcanpa2_kenneth January 28 2014 at 7:31 AM

But seems most of us want it to be later and not sooner!

Flag Reply 0 rate up
SCHREEDIE January 28 2014 at 3:58 AM

I hear people saying all the time "She's terminal...he's on his "last legs"...funny. My take on this whole living thing is this ..."none of us is going to make it out of this alive!" Fleeting - so many precious minutes...

Flag Reply +1 rate up
roborose2005 January 28 2014 at 7:35 AM

Oh boy -- it's Margaret Atwood. Oryx and Crake time a-comin'.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
lbreamer January 28 2014 at 11:00 AM

Ever read "The Stand" by Stephen King??? "That type of plague can kill people within 24 hours of being infected." Yeah, sounds like Captain Trips, Super Flu, whatever nasty bug that took out the populace in the book... I swear, I get a cold or sniffles every time I read that book & then worry that I'm sick with the Super Flu!! lol

Flag Reply +4 rate up
1 reply
flewharty lbreamer January 28 2014 at 2:55 PM

lbreamer - Lol! I love that book! And yes, sniffles or cold after re-reading it can make ya paranoid!

Flag Reply 0 rate up
STEPHEN January 28 2014 at 11:29 AM

We have been living with the plague since November 2008 .

Flag Reply +14 rate up
pmurrayr January 28 2014 at 2:50 AM

Bring out your dead!... bring out your dead!!.... Nothing like a bit of fear mongering to brighten up a bored journalist day.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
2 replies
Steve pmurrayr January 28 2014 at 7:28 AM

it is not fear.my fear is a mentality like yours,and atitude like yours,it is a strive for the truth!

Flag Reply +3 rate up
tuccimusic pmurrayr January 28 2014 at 8:51 AM

AMEN!!!

Flag Reply 0 rate up
stevebewley January 28 2014 at 6:38 AM

More fear mongering. Hell according to the media, we have to worry about quasar x-ray burst to extinct plague to aids to cancer to you name it.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
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