Did Just One Strain of Bacteria Nearly Wipe Out The World?

First Published: June 10, 2016 Last updated: June 20th, 2016 Written by Ian Stephens Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

Recent scientific discoveries have shown a rather horrifying trend – that the infamous Black Plague was spawned by just one strain or plague bacterium.

Over the course of recent history, it’s been suggested on more than one occasion that the Black Plague, one of the worst pandemics of all-time, was perhaps caused by something innocuous. People always put this theory down to pure conjecture – as if something so horrible could be formed by just one condition. However, it would appear that this theory was right all along – according to Cell Press, just one single strain of the plague bacterium across Europe was responsible for the creation of the Black Plague!


From the middle of the 14th century onwards, numerous forms of this one specific illness formed and made recurrent outbreaks over Europe possible. It was because of this constant recurrence and consistent that the plague managed to break from Europe into the Eurasia region, reaching China and causing the third plague pandemic by the late 19th century.

Even more horrifyingly, though, the form of the plague that reached China and caused such incredible damage across Asia in the 19th century is the father of many of the conditions that we need to deal with today. Recent genome analysis found that modern-day epidemics are caused by an offspring of this very illness.

Could it be that people today are still dying due to the plague of centuries that have since passed?

A Horrifying Discovery

This was only discovered on the 8th June, 2016, when the Cell Host & Microbe journal released the information via one of their many breakthrough studies. The author, Maria Spyrou, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, established the link in a recent journal release.

According to this study, the actual plague bacteria itself – only known as Yersinia Pestis – was one of the deadliest forms of illness or pathogen in the entirety of human history. It was the sole illness responsible for three brutal plague pandemics across the world;

  • pestis was the beginning of the Plague of Justinian, the horrible plague which hit the Roman Empire during the 6th and 8th Century.
  • pestis also played a role in the development of the Black Death, a vicious plague which hit Europe in the 14th century. This continued to hit various parts of Europe and beyond right through to the 18th century, making it one of the most consistent and brutally dangerous forms of human death.
  • Lastly, the Chinese plague which emerged in China was from the same kind of family of plague – this shows you just how far the incredible power of plague can travel.

How Was This Discovered?

Having thoroughly reviewed major volumes of evidence pertaining to DNA samples from ancient times as well as the historical climate patterns of each era, the suggestion became clear. The outbreaks of the Black Death seemed to occur again and again in the time period due to the fuck that it was continually re-introduced. Whereas it would be “defeated” in one area, it would return elsewhere and cause the same brutal damage. It’s believed that many of these re-occurrences would happen because they came from Asia. Others believe that it may have went from Europe to Asia, and hung around until the third pandemic listed above.

The Black Death artwork

The Black Death artwork

However, for many years this has just been a theory – and nothing more. There’s been no genuine, solid proof or evidence that this was the case and thus it was nothing more than a potential model for what may occur.

Eventually, Spyrou got together with other study authors such as Alex Herbig, Kirsten Bos and Johannes Krause, all of the Max Planck Institute. Together, they brought together large volumes of samples from individuals who were infected with the plague and were buried in mass graves. Gruesome as it may be, these diverse samples came from places like Ellwangen in Germany and Barcelona in Spain. A single study collection was taken from Bolgar, Russia, too.

By taking people from the mass graves that were loaded with hundreds of people at a time, it gave the researchers a chance to really understand the severity of the plague itself. After reviewing 178 different individual DNA results, they found that Y.pestis was found in 32 bodies, of which three gave enough for a strong genome-level analysis process to be carried out.

By using the genomes of the three here with the 148 previously sequenced modern and ancient strains of the Y.pestis phylogenetic tree, the group were able to build the “family tree” of the plague itself. The main result they found?

That there was no difference between the Black Death strain from Barcelona, and previously recorded strains that were found in 14th century London!

The fact it could appear in both Southern and Northern Europe means that it must have moved through the continent in one brutal wave, rather than the shorter but varied pulses that we were led to believe in.

When compared to other plagues of the era, such as the 18th century Great Plague in France, there is immense similarity. All three of the new genomes found here were easily grouped together in with the same branch of the phylogenetic tree. So, when put together, this makes it easy to appreciate the claim that Y.pestis could be found in both the Black Death and the numerous other pandemics that spread afterward.

VIDEO: The Black Death

The Other Discovery

However, the body from Bolgar turned out to be one of the most exciting – or terrifying. The strain found there has similarities with both the Black Death of London as well as many modern strains of the illness. This means that it’s far more likely that this one particular strain continues to move around Europe and Asia post-Black Death – and may even play a major role in modern epidemics we see today.

The future for this information, then, is to keep learning and discovering. The research team now plan to continue to look into this particularly engaging entry, with the aim of finding both the start and end points for the Black Death within Europe. The idea is to find more samples and to further explore Europe to further understand how the disease travelled in a chronological format.

This means they can learn more about how it evolved and also the real toll that it took on humanity. It’s safe to say, though, that this knowledge will be vital for further learning and education about the plague in the future.

Does it terrify you as much as it terrifies us to find out that one strain could have potentially lead to such a significant part of humanity being potentially wiped out?

About Ian Stephens

Ian Stephens is an editor and writer for UFO Insight. He has a keen interest in the fields of strange phenomena, UFOs and aliens. He is also interested in space, physics and science in general. Writing for over 10 years in these fields, Ian has a lot of experience and knowledge to share.

Ian has written a total of 95 articles for UFO Insight. You can contact Ian via email.

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