Harbeck, Michaela; Seifert, Lisa; Hänsch, Stephanie; Wagner, David M.; Birdsell, Dawn; Parise, Katy L.; Wiechmann, Ingrid; Grupe, Gisela; Thomas, Astrid; Keim, Paul; Zöller, Lothar; Bramanti, Barbara; Riehm, Julia M.; Scholz, Holger C. (Mai 2013): Yersinia pestis DNA from Skeletal Remains from the 6(th) Century AD Reveals Insights into Justinianic Plague.
In: PLOS Pathogens 9(5), e1003349




Yersinia pestis, the etiologic agent of the disease plague, has been implicated in three historical pandemics. These include the third pandemic of the 19(th) and 20(th) centuries, during which plague was spread around the world, and the second pandemic of the 14(th)-17(th) centuries, which included the infamous epidemic known as the Black Death. Previous studies have confirmed that Y. pestis caused these two more recent pandemics. However, a highly spirited debate still continues as to whether Y. pestis caused the so-called Justinianic Plague of the 6(th)-8(th) centuries AD. By analyzing ancient DNA in two independent ancient DNA laboratories, we confirmed unambiguously the presence of Y. pestis DNA in human skeletal remains from an Early Medieval cemetery. In addition, we narrowed the phylogenetic position of the responsible strain down to major branch 0 on the Y. pestis phylogeny, specifically between nodes N03 and N05. Our findings confirm that Y. pestis was responsible for the Justinianic Plague, which should end the controversy regarding the etiology of this pandemic. The first genotype of a Y. pestis strain that caused the Late Antique plague provides important information about the history of the plague bacillus and suggests that the first pandemic also originated in Asia, similar to the other two plague pandemics.