Digging History

Black Death's hideout: Scientists reconstruct centuries-old plague pathogen genomes

Marseille during the Great Plague of 1720 (public domain).

Marseille during the Great Plague of 1720 (public domain).

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany have taken an important step forward in our understanding of the plague that ravaged Europe hundreds of years ago.

The team successfully reconstructed complete pathogen genomes from victims of the Great Plague of Marseille, which raged from 1720 to 1722. Scientists used teeth from plague pits in Marseille to access tiny fragments of DNA that had been preserved for hundreds of years.

Related: Fossil of duck-billed dinosaur found along Alabama creek

"We faced a significant challenge in reconstructing these ancient genomes," said computational analyst Alexander Herbig, in a press release. "To our surprise, the 18th century plague seems to be a form that is no longer circulating, and it descends directly from the disease that entered Europe during the Black Death, several centuries earlier.”

The Great Plague of Marseille is assumed to be the last outbreak of medieval plague in Europe.

The findings are detailed online journal eLife.

Related: Huge titanosaur makes American Museum of Natural History debut

However, the geographical source of the Great Plague of Marseille has not yet been identified, according to Kirsten Bos, a lead author of the publication. Marseille, she notes, was a major hub for European trade, but the plague studied by the Max Planck scientists may actually have been present elsewhere in Europe. "Our results suggest that the disease was hiding somewhere in Europe for several hundred years,” she noted.

"It's a chilling thought that plague might have once been hiding right around the corner throughout Europe, living in a host which is not known to us yet" explained Johannes Krause, director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute. "Future work might help us to identify the mysterious host species, its range and the reason for its disappearance".