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.
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