Black Death vic­tims yield their se­crets

Modern Healthcare - - OUTLIERS -

You can learn a lot from a tooth. Mo­lars taken from skele­tons un­earthed by work on a new Lon­don rail­way line are re­veal­ing se­crets of the me­dieval Black Death—and of its vic­tims. And re­searchers hope fur­ther test­ing will help in the fight against fu­ture pan­demics.

Don Walker, an os­te­ol­o­gist with the Mu­seum of Lon­don, late last month out­lined the bi­og­ra­phy of one man whose an­cient bones were found by con­struc­tion work­ers un­der Lon­don’s Char­ter­house Square: He was breast-fed as a baby, moved to Lon­don from an­other part of Eng­land, had bad tooth de­cay in child­hood, grew up to work as a la­borer, and died in early adult­hood from the bubonic plague that rav­aged Europe in the 14th century.

The poor man’s life was nasty, brutish and short, but his af­ter­life is long and il­lu­mi­nat­ing.

The 25 skele­tons were un­cov­ered last year dur­ing work on Cross­rail, a new rail line that’s bor­ing 13 miles of tun­nels un­der the heart of the city. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists im­me­di­ately sus­pected the bones came from a ceme­tery for plague vic­tims.

To test their the­ory, sci­en­tists took one tooth from each of 12 skele­tons, then ex­tracted DNA from the teeth. The tests found the pres­ence of the plague bac­terium, Yersinia pestis, in sev­eral of the teeth, mean­ing the in­di­vid­u­als had been ex­posed to—and likely died from— the Black Death.

And the teeth may not have yielded all their se­crets. Ex­perts in an­cient DNA at McMaster Univer­sity in Canada are work­ing to se­quence the plague genome found in the teeth.

Sci­en­tists want to know if the 14th century dis­ease is the same as the mod­ern ver­sion, or whether the dis­ease has evolved. Brendan Wren, a pro­fes­sor of molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy at the Lon­don School of Hy­giene and Trop­i­cal Medicine, said the new in­for­ma­tion could help sci­en­tists “un­der­stand how the plague bacil­lus—and other nasty bugs—be­come so vir­u­lent to hu­mans.”

“It is use­ful in­for­ma­tion that could warn and avert po­ten­tial epi­demics and pan­demics,” he said.

Skele­tons un­earthed in Lon­don could help sci­en­tists bat­tle fu­ture epi­demics.

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