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4,000-Year-Old DNA Identifies Britain's Oldest Known Case of Plague

WEDNESDAY, May 31, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers have identified the oldest cases of plague in Britain to date, with DNA that is 4,000 years old.

The team from the Francis Crick Institute in London has found three ancient British cases of Yersinia pestis -- the bacteria that causes the plague -- in skeleton samples of two children and one woman.

Two of the cases were found in a mass burial site in Charterhouse Warren in Somerset. The third was discovered in a ring cairn monument in Levens in Cumbria after researchers took skeletal samples of teeth from 34 people at the two sites.

The scientists drilled into the teeth and extracted dental pulp, which can trap DNA remnants of infectious diseases. They then analyzed DNA and found Yersinia pestis in the two children, who were ages 10 to 12, and the woman, who died around age 34 or 35.

Radiocarbon dating showed it’s likely the three people lived at roughly the same time.

While the plague had been previously identified in people from Eurasia between 5,000 and 2,500 years ago, it had not been seen in Britain at this point in time.

Researchers noted that the wide geographic spread suggests this strain of the plague may have been easily transmitted.

This strain of the plague is the LNBA lineage, for the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age, and was likely brought into Central and Western Europe around 4,800 years ago by humans expanding into Eurasia. This research now suggests it extended into Britain.

It looks very similar to the strain identified in Eurasia at this time, according to genome sequencing, the researchers said.

“The ability to detect ancient pathogens from degraded samples, from thousands of years ago, is incredible. These genomes can inform us of the spread and evolutionary changes of pathogens in the past, and hopefully help us understand which genes may be important in the spread of infectious diseases,” study co-author Pooja Swali said in a Crick news release. Swali is a PhD student at the institute.

The individuals identified lacked the yapC and ymt genes, which are seen in later strains of plague, the research team noted. The ymt genes are known play an important role in plague transmission via fleas. This information has previously suggested that this strain of the plague was not transmitted via fleas.

The remains at Charterhouse Warren may involve people who died not due to the plague outbreak but had the infection at the time of their deaths. There were signs they died of trauma.

Study findings were published May 30 in Nature Communications.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on plague.

SOURCE: Francis Crick Institute, news release, May 30, 2023

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