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Bringing Back the Black Death

The remains of Plague victims were used to reconstruct the disease in understanding how it disappears, evolves and then reappears throughout history.

It’s not uncommon to hear those in business or construction talk about tearing things down before they can begin to build them back up.

And although frightening – especially when talking about a highly contagious and life-threatening disease - it seems like the same methodology also applies to the medical field.

More specifically, scientists recently used the remains of Plague victims discovered in 1966 to reconstruct the disease’s cell genome strain in order to better understand how certain diseases seem to either disappear or continue to evolve and spread.

Variations of Y. pestis are thought to have caused at least three known plague pandemics.

Early in the sixth century, the world’s first known plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, killed and sickened more than 25 million people in and around the Mediterranean Sea. The pandemic, which was called the Justinian Plague after the Byzantine emperor, lasted for about 250 years.

The Black Death - a pandemic that emerged in the Middle Ages and killed up to half of the European population followed. The third plague pandemic began in late 19th-century China, and is believed to be the genesis of many diseases that still exist.

What troubles experts is that they’re still not sure how or why the original Justinian plague disappeared or how the following strains emerged.

Between 1,000 and 2,000 plague cases caused by Y. pestis are reported to the World Health Organization each year. Last year 15 cases of the bubonic plague were reported In the U.S. – four of which resulted in death.

Antibiotics and antimicrobials are often used to treat the plague, but scientists think that by taking a closer look at the ancient pathogens of the diseased genomes, they could better understand its cause, how it spreads and possibly eliminate plague-related deaths once and for all.

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