The Black Death was the single greatest mortality event in recorded history, killing up to 50% of the European population in less than five years. New research from the University of Chicago, McMaster University, and the Institut Pasteur has found evidence that one of the darkest periods in recorded human history placed a significant selective pressure on the human population, changing the frequency of certain immune-related genetic variants and affecting our susceptibility to disease today. The results were published on October 19 in Nature.
Caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the global pandemic of the bubonic plague wiped out 30% to 60% of people in cities across North Africa, Europe, and Asia, with massive repercussions for the human race — and, apparently, our genome.
“This was a very direct way to evaluate the impact that a single pathogen had on human evolution,” said Luis Barreiro, professor of genetic medicine at UChicago and co-senior author on the study. “People have speculated for a long time that the Black Death might be a strong cause of selection, but it’s hard to demonstrate that when looking at modern populations, because humans had to face many other selective pressures between then and now. The only way to address the question is to narrow the time window we’re looking at.”
In the study, thanks to recent advances in sequencing technology, the scientists examined ancient DNA samples from the bones of over 200 individuals from London and Denmark who died before, during, and after the Black Death plague swept through the region in the late 1340s. Using targeted sequencing for a set of 300 immune-related genes, they identified four genes that, depending on the variant, either protected against or increased susceptibility to Y. pestis.