Bacteria found in skeletons confirms source of London's Great Plague

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We've finally gotten confirmation of what caused as many as 100,000 people to die in London centuries ago.

Thanks to DNA testing, for the first time, scientists have found evidence of the bacteria from London's Great Plague.

Museum of London Archaeology researchers working at a mass burial site found the bacteria Yersinia pestis in the teeth of five out of the 20 skeletons sampled.

"Ancient DNA is very vulnerable to contamination and suffers from full preservation. ... The teeth are like sealed capsules that preserve this information better than other parts of the skeleton," said Michael Henderson, senior human osteologist at the Museum of London Archaeology.

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Yersinia pestis has a looming reputation. Previous testing showed it was the bacteria behind the Black Death, which hit Europe in the 14th century and killed about 40 percent of the region's population.

Nearly a fourth of London's population died in the plague of 1665. But don't worry, the bacteria would have died just days after the people did, so researchers won't be unleashing any new plagues by digging up the site.

Other than piecing together history, it's good to know more about diseases like the plague to understand how it spreads, evolves and is similar to today's diseases.

RELATED: See science on the bubonic plague through history

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Bubonic plague through history
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Bubonic plague through history
Yersinia Pestis Bacteria Causes Bubonic Plague In Animals And Humans And Usually Is Transmitted By The Bite Of Infected Rat Fleas. Illustration Based On Light Microscope Image At 1000X. (Photo By BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 2003: Yersinia pestis (formerly Pasteurella pestis), the bubonic plague bacterium, seen under a microscope. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
In this undated but recent photo supplied Friday March 15, 2015, by the London Crossrail Project, showing archaeologists working on the UK’s largest infrastructure project, Crossrail, as they uncover an historical burial ground at Charterhouse Square, Farringdon in central London. Scientists were called in to investigate bones found during the digging of a new railway in central London, after uncovered 13 skeletons were found. The skeletons will be tested to see if they died from the Black Death plague which killed between 30 and 60 percent of the European population in the 14th century, and scientist hope to map the DNA signature of the plague bacteria. (AP Photo / Crossrail Project)
In this undated but recent photo supplied Friday March 15, 2015, by the London Crossrail Project, showing archaeologists working on the UK’s largest infrastructure project, Crossrail, as they uncover an historical burial ground at Charterhouse Square, Farringdon in central London. Scientists were called in to investigate bones found during the digging of a new railway in central London, after uncovered 13 skeletons were found. The skeletons will be tested to see if they died from the Black Death plague which killed between 30 and 60 percent of the European population in the 14th century, and scientist hope to map the DNA signature of the plague bacteria. (AP Photo / Crossrail Project)
In this Wednesday, March 26, 2014 photo, some of the skeletons found by construction workers under central London's Charterhouse Square are pictured. Twenty-five skeletons were uncovered last year during work on Crossrail, a new rail line that's boring 13 miles (21 kilometers) of tunnels under the heart of the city. Archaeologists immediately suspected the bones came from a cemetery for victims of the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. The Black Death, as the plague was called, is thought to have killed at least 75 million people, including more than half of Britain's population. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
In this Wednesday, March 26, 2014 photo, one of the skeletons found by construction workers under central London's Charterhouse Square is pictured. Twenty-five skeletons were uncovered last year during work on Crossrail, a new rail line that's boring 13 miles (21 kilometers) of tunnels under the heart of the city. Archaeologists immediately suspected the bones came from a cemetery for victims of the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. The Black Death, as the plague was called, is thought to have killed at least 75 million people, including more than half of Britain's population. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Seven-year-old Sierra Jane Downing from Pagosa Springs, Colo., is pushed in a wheel chair by a nurse following a news conference about her recovery from Bubonic Plague at the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children at Presbyterian/St. Luke's Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012, in Denver. It is believed Downing caught the Bubonic Plague from burying a dead squirrel. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Seven-year-old Sierra Jane Downing from Pagosa Springs, Colo., hugs her teddy bear while her father Sean Downing and mother Darcy Downing talk about her recovery from Bubonic Plague at the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children at Presbyterian/St. Luke's during a news conference Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012, in Denver. It is believed Downing caught the Bubonic Plague from burying a dead squirrel. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
FILE - In this June 15, 2010 file photo, a rat wanders the subway tracks at Union Square in New York. Hantavirus, West Nile, Lyme disease and now, bubonic plague. The bugs of late summer are biting, although the risk of getting many of these scary-sounding diseases is very small. Bubonic plague can spread through contact with an infected flea, rodent or cat. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)
UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 12: This European amulet, which features a representation of the Virgin Mary on the obverse, would have been worn as protection against catching the plague. The plague is caused by infection with Yersinia Pestis, carried by fleas that infest rodents which then bite humans. The plague is thought to have originated from the Eastern provinces of China, and travelled along the well established Silk Road through the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, before reaching southern Italy in 1347 and the rest of Europe soon after. Also known as the bubonic plague and the Black Death, it killed one third of the population of Europe. Outbreaks of the plague continued to occur in Europe until the 17th century. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 21: This pomander, with a rat engraved on its side, contains six compartments and has a chain for suspension. It was probably carried as a protector against the plague. Pomanders were popular in Medieval times. They contained sweet-smelling herbs and spices and were believed to ward off infections carried by foul-smelling air. Regular outbreaks of bubonic plague, a disease transmitted from rats to people by fleas, occurred in Medieval times and continued until the 17th century. The most notable plague outbreak was the Black Death of the 14th century, which originated in China, and is estimated to have killed a third of the population of Europe. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 04: A metal cautery for cauterising plague buboes (a swollen inflamed lymph node in the armpit, neck or groin). Cautery irons were heated until red-hot like branding irons, and applied to burn and seal bleeding areas, such as buboes, skin ulcers or amputation stumps. The long handle allowed the physician to keep his distance from the patient. Regular outbreaks of bubonic plague, a disease transmitted from rats to people by fleas, occurred in Medieval times and continued until the 17th century. The most notable plague outbreak was the Black Death of the 14th century, which originated in China, and is estimated to have killed a third of the population of Europe. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
An archaeologist uncovers the skeleton of one of more than 1000 bodies discovered on the site of the Old Royal Mint near the Tower of London, in England in 1987. The person is suspected to have died during the Black Death which killed nearly half of London's population in 1349. (AP Photo)
Setting rat traps, Hugh Stenson uses raisin bread dipped in bacon fat as bait, at the site of an abandoned fish cannery on a pier in San Francisco, Jan. 14, 1963. Stenson heads the rodent control unit at the U.S. Public Health field station in San Francisco, which studies and guards against bubonic plague, carried by rats and other wild rodents. The unit catches as many as 10,000 rats a year in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Robert W. Klein)
Early Nineteenth Century engraving of a black rat similar to that which carried the fleas that spread the bubonic plague in crowded urban areas during the Great Plague of London, an outbreak which killed some 70, 000 persons. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Plague (19th century depiction), Bubonic plague is a zoonotic disease, circulating mainly among small rodents and their fleas. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images)
Plague (19th century depiction), Bubonic plague is a zoonotic disease, circulating mainly among small rodents and their fleas. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images)
Nineteenth Century English engraving of ghastly scene of Death Cart empyting corpses into a mass grave or Plague Pit at night during the Great Plague of London, an outbreak of bubonic plague which killed some 70, 000 persons. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Victims of the Black Death being buried at Tournai, then part of the Netherlands, 1349. The Black Death was thought to have been an outbreak of the bubonic plague, which killed up to half the population of Europe. From the 'Chronique et Annales de Gilles le Muisit'. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
People praying for relief from the bubonic plague, circa 1350. Original Artwork: Designed by E Corbould, lithograph by F Howard. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Late Eighteenth Century (?) English engraving of grief stricken mourners among the dead and dying in the streets of London during the Great Plague, an outbreak of bubonic plague which killed some 70, 000 persons. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
A plague hospital in Vienna during the Great Plague of Vienna, Austria, 1679. The disease, thought to be the bubonic plague, claimed around 76,000 lives. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Filling a mass grave at night during the Plague of London, c 1665. Showing a group of men with torches in a churchyard, preparing to empty the contents of a covered cart into an open grave. The Plague, also known as the Black Death, was a disease caused by Yersinia Pestis, an infection carried by fleas living as parasites on rats. The Plague hit London in late 1664, having ravaged Holland the previous year, and killed around 100,000 people in and around the city. The dead were collected at night and thrown into common burial graves. (Photo by Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images)
An inscription on a wall of Ashwell Church, Hertfordshire, written during the epidemic of plague that swept through Europe in the middle of the 14th century known as the Black Death, May 1979. (Photo By RDImages/Epics/Getty Images)
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There's more to be done, however. Researchers also plan on doing isotopic analysis, which will help them understand where these individuals came from, what their diets were like and other possible diseases they may have contracted during their lives.

Other findings also have been discovered at the site, and all findings will be published in a book set to be released next year.


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