Plague of Justinian the first of the world’s worst epidemics

(ORDO NEWS) — The Plague of Justinian is the first (of the recorded) plague pandemics that happened centuries before the famous Black Death.

Named after the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, who ruled at the time of the disaster, the plague engulfed the entire civilized territory of that time and manifested itself in separate outbreaks of epidemics for another two centuries. Today we will tell about it and related discoveries.

Scale of the plague

This pandemic (worldwide epidemic) broke out around 541 AD and quickly spread throughout Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

At its peak, according to historians, it claimed 10,000 lives on the territory of Constantinople daily, although modern experts believe that this figure can be doubled.

The bodies were piled right on the streets – it was impossible to bury such a number of dead, which is why the stench of cadaveric decay spread throughout the city. Epidemic outbreaks appeared more than two centuries later, although the level of toxicity gradually decreased.

Scientists believe that the cause of the disease was infected rats and fleas on board ships that imported grain to Constantinople in transit from Egypt and other countries. The plague was caused by the bacillus Y. pestis, and the vectors themselves were immune to it.

However, the virulence of the microorganism is so great that only 3 bacilli are enough to kill a laboratory mouse (and about 24,000 bacteria were transmitted to humans with a flea bite). However, judging by the historical chronicles, there were those who remained completely immune to infection.

Plague of Justinian the first of the worlds worst epidemics 2Remains of two victims recovered from a German burial

Originally from China

According to the latest research published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution , a genetic analysis of the remains of plague victims recovered from a large burial near Altenerding, Germany showed that this particular strain (named Y. persis) came from China .

Scientists led by Dave Wagner analyzed samples of the Y. persis genome found on the skeletons and found mutational changes called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that made them unique.

Such mutations consist in differences in the DNA sequence of just one nucleotide (A, T, G or C, respectively) in the genome of representatives of the same species or between homologous regions of chromosomes.

Plague of Justinian the first of the worlds worst epidemics 3

Why investigate the plague?

At the same time, studies by another group of microbiologists, led by Michael Feldman, showed that the Black Death was not a direct descendant of the Plague of Justinian, but rather was its “distant relative”.

Of course, additional analysis of the unique genetic characteristics of bacteria is needed. At least some of these mutations may be related to the virulence of Y. pestis, which means that this strain is much more diverse than scientists thought.

The study of mutations of plague strains is extremely important, as it allows us to draw conclusions about the mechanism of the global spread of the disease, which in turn will prevent such incidents in the future.


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