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Scientists confirm that Roman Empire was destroyed by plague

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
May 13th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The Justinianic Plague of the sixth to eighth centuries killed more than 100 million people. Named after Byzantine emperor Justinian I, historians had previously suggested it contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire. The Justinianic Plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which is highly similar to the Black Death that devastated Europe in the Middle Ages.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The three historical "pestilences" are recognized as being due to plague. Due to advances made in the study of microbiology, it has been recently acknowledged that the causing agent was the bacterium Yersinia pestis.

"For a long time scholars from different disciplines have intensively discussed about the actual etiological agents of the past pandemics. Only ancient DNA analyses carried out on skeletal remains of plague victims could finally conclude the debate," Dr. Barbara Bramanti of the Palaeogenetics Group at the Institute of Anthropology at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz says.

Bramanti headed the international team two years ago that demonstrated beyond any doubt that Y. pestis also caused the second pandemic of the 14th-17th centuries including the Black Death, the infamous epidemic that ravaged Europe from 1346-1351.

Bramanti, along with her Mainz colleague Stephanie Hansch and international scholars joined together to solve the debate as to whether Y. pestis caused the so-called Justinianic Plague of the 6th-8th centuries A.D.

The results of ancient DNA analyses confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that Y. pestis was indeed the causing agent of the first pandemic. As for the second and third pandemic, the original sources of the plague bacillus were in Asia.

"It remains questionable whether at the time of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian only one strain or more were disseminated in Europe, as it was at the time of the Black Death," suggested Bramanti and Hansch.

Yersinia pestis is a Gram-negative rod-shaped bacterium. It is a facultative anaerobe that can infect humans and other animals.

Human Y. pestis infection takes three main forms: pneumonic, septicemic, and the notorious bubonic plagues. All three forms are widely believed to have been responsible for a number of epidemics throughout human history, including the Black Death. It has now been shown conclusively that these plagues originated in rodent populations in China.

More recently, Y. pestis has gained attention as a possible biological warfare agent and the CDC has classified it as a category A pathogen requiring preparation for a possible terrorist attack.

Every year, thousands of cases of plague are still reported to the World Health Organization, although, with proper treatment, the prognosis for victims is now much better.

The results of their study were published last week in PloS Pathogens.

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