Shotgun metagenomics provides a powerful assumption-free approach to the recovery of pathogen genomes from contemporary and historical material. We sequenced the metagenome of a calcified nodule from the skeleton of a 14th-century middle-aged male excavated from the medieval Sardinian settlement of Geridu. We obtained 6.5-fold coverage of a Brucella melitensis genome. Sequence reads from this genome showed signatures typical of ancient or aged DNA. Despite the relatively low coverage, we were able to use information from single-nucleotide polymorphisms to place the medieval pathogen genome within a clade of B. melitensis strains that included the well-studied Ether strain and two other recent Italian isolates. We confirmed this placement using information from deletions and IS711 insertions. We conclude that metagenomics stands ready to document past and present infections, shedding light on the emergence, evolution, and spread of microbial pathogens. Importance: Infectious diseases have shaped human populations and societies throughout history. The recovery of pathogen DNA sequences from human remains provides an opportunity to identify and characterize the causes of individual and epidemic infections. By sequencing DNA extracted from medieval human remains through shotgun metagenomics, without target-specific capture or amplification, we have obtained a draft genome sequence of an ~700-year-old Brucella melitensis strain. Using a variety of bioinformatic approaches, we have shown that this historical strain is most closely related to recent strains isolated from Italy, confirming the continuity of this zoonotic infection, and even a specific lineage, in the Mediterranean region over the centuries.
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.
From AD 1347 to AD 1353, the Black Death killed tens of millions of people in Europe, leaving misery and devastation in its wake, with successive epidemics ravaging the continent until the 18(th) century. The etiology of this disease has remained highly controversial, ranging from claims based on genetics and the historical descriptions of symptoms that it was caused by Yersinia pestis to conclusions that it must have been caused by other pathogens. It has also been disputed whether plague had the same etiology in northern and southern Europe. Here we identified DNA and protein signatures specific for Y. pestis in human skeletons from mass graves in northern, central and southern Europe that were associated archaeologically with the Black Death and subsequent resurgences. We confirm that Y. pestis caused the Black Death and later epidemics on the entire European continent over the course of four centuries. Furthermore, on the basis of 17 single nucleotide polymorphisms plus the absence of a deletion in glpD gene, our aDNA results identified two previously unknown but related clades of Y. pestis associated with distinct medieval mass graves. These findings suggest that plague was imported to Europe on two or more occasions, each following a distinct route. These two clades are ancestral to modern isolates of Y. pestis biovars Orientalis and Medievalis. Our results clarify the etiology of the Black Death and provide a paradigm for a detailed historical reconstruction of the infection routes followed by this disease.
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