Yersinia pestis has caused at least three human plague pandemics. The second (Black Death, 14-17th centuries) and third (19-20th centuries) have been genetically characterised, but there is only a limited understanding of the first pandemic, the Plague of Justinian (6-8th centuries). To address this gap, we sequenced and analysed draft genomes of Y pestis obtained from two individuals who died in the first pandemic.
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.
Yersinia pestis has been identified as the causative agent of the Black Death pandemic in the 14(th) century. However, retrospective diagnostics in human skeletons after more than 600 years are critical. We describe a strategy following a modern diagnostic algorithm and working under strict ancient DNA regime for the identification of medieval human plague victims. An initial screening and DNA quantification assay detected the Y. pestis specific pla gene of the high copy number plasmid pPCP1. Results were confirmed by conventional PCR and sequence analysis targeting both Y. pestis specific virulence plasmids pPCP1 and pMT1. All assays were meticulously validated according to human clinical diagnostics requirements (ISO 15189) regarding efficiency, sensitivity, specificity, and limit of detection (LOD). Assay specificity was 100% tested on 41 clinically relevant bacteria and 29 Y. pseudotuberculosis strains as well as for DNA of 22 Y. pestis strains and 30 previously confirmed clinical human plague samples. The optimized LOD was down to 4 gene copies. 29 individuals from three different multiple inhumations were initially assessed as possible victims of the Black Death pandemic. 7 samples (24%) were positive in the pPCP1 specific screening assay. Confirmation through second target pMT1 specific PCR was successful for 4 of the positive individuals (14%). A maximum of 700 and 560 copies per µl aDNA were quantified in two of the samples. Those were positive in all assays including all repetitions, and are candidates for future continuative investigations such as whole genome sequencing. We discuss that all precautions taken here for the work with aDNA are sufficient to prevent external sample contamination and fulfill the criteria of authenticity. With regard to retrospective diagnostics of a human pathogen and the uniqueness of ancient material we strongly recommend using a careful strategy and validated assays as presented in our study.
Human cremation is a common funeral practice all over the world and will presumably become an even more popular choice for interment in the future. Mainly for purposes of identification, there is presently a growing need to perform trace analyses such as DNA or stable isotope analyses on human remains after cremation in order to clarify pending questions in civil or criminal court cases. The aim of this study was to experimentally test the potential and limitations of DNA and stable isotope analyses when conducted on cremated remains. For this purpose, tibiae from modern cattle were experimentally cremated by incinerating the bones in increments of 100°C until a maximum of 1000°C was reached. In addition, cremated human remains were collected from a modern crematory. The samples were investigated to determine level of DNA preservation and stable isotope values (C and N in collagen, C and O in the structural carbonate, and Sr in apatite). Furthermore, we assessed the integrity of microstructural organization, appearance under UV-light, collagen content, as well as the mineral and crystalline organization. This was conducted in order to provide a general background with which to explain observed changes in the trace analyses data sets. The goal is to develop an efficacious screening method for determining at which degree of burning bone still retains its original biological signals. We found that stable isotope analysis of the tested light elements in bone is only possible up to a heat exposure of 300°C while the isotopic signal from strontium remains unaltered even in bones exposed to very high temperatures. DNA-analyses seem theoretically possible up to a heat exposure of 600°C but can not be advised in every case because of the increased risk of contamination. While the macroscopic colour and UV-fluorescence of cremated bone give hints to temperature exposure of the bones outer surface, its histological appearance can be used as a reliable indicator for the assessment of the overall degree of burning.
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