Posts Tagged ‘Black Death’

Nasty, heathen, Asian gerbils were responsible for European plagues

February 24, 2015

It was fleas on the giant gerbils of central Asia which were to blame. Wet springs followed by warm summers caused giant gerbil populations in the heathen wilds of central Asia to boom. The plague carrying fleas they were infested with also boomed. The fleas jumped – as fleas are wont to do – onto domestic animals and onto humans. These thoughtless Asians forced their trade onto hapless, innocent, Christian Europeans along the Silk Road and through European harbour ports. The fleas, which carried the plague bacteria, jumped again to European rats, found the living good and multiplied. This was back in the 1300s. And for 400 years it was waves of Asian gerbils and their fleas which preyed upon the hapless Europeans. The plague outbreaks in Europe came 15 years after the wet springs and warm summers in Asia. The poor innocent European rats were demonised quite wrongly. This we now know by studying tree rings.

It is, in fact, the Asians who must be blamed for gerbils and the plague and also for language, for agriculture and for religion.

Boris V Schmid et al, Climate-driven introduction of the Black Death and successive plague reintroductions into Europe, PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1412887112

AbstractThe Black Death, originating in Asia, arrived in the Mediterranean harbors of Europe in 1347 CE, via the land and sea trade routes of the ancient Silk Road system. This epidemic marked the start of the second plague pandemic, which lasted in Europe until the early 19th century. This pandemic is generally understood as the consequence of a singular introduction of Yersinia pestis, after which the disease established itself in European rodents over four centuries. To locate these putative plague reservoirs, we studied the climate fluctuations that preceded regional plague epidemics, based on a dataset of 7,711 georeferenced historical plague outbreaks and 15 annually resolved tree-ring records from Europe and Asia. We provide evidence for repeated climate-driven reintroductions of the bacterium into European harbors from reservoirs in Asia, with a delay of 15 ± 1 y. Our analysis finds no support for the existence of permanent plague reservoirs in medieval Europe.

The gerbil theory is not implausible but it smacks a bit of confirmation bias. The 15 year time lag is less than convincing. A gerbil lives for 3 to 4 years. A flea lives 30 – 90 days. Correlation is not causation. That European outbreaks of plague came 5 gerbil lifetimes later than the population boom in Asia, and about 60 flea generations later than the flea which first infested the sorry gerbil, is a little far-fetched.

 

The Black Death altered European genes

February 25, 2014

A fascinating study and further support for my view that evolution is not about survival of the fittest but is about the deselection of the weakest.

Reblogged from Science magazine:

The Black Death didn’t just wipe out millions of Europeans during the 14th century. It left a mark on the human genome, favoring those who carried certain immune system genes, according to a new study. Those changes may help explain why Europeans respond differently from other people to some diseases and have different susceptibilities to autoimmune disorders.

Geneticists know that human populations evolve in the face of disease. Certain versions of our genes help us fight infections better than others, and people who carry those genes tend to have more children than those who don’t. So the beneficial genetic versions persist, while other versions tend to disappear as those carrying them die. This weeding-out of all but the best genes is called positive selection. But researchers have trouble pinpointing positively selected genes in humans, as many genes vary from one individual to the next.

Enter Mihai Netea, an immunologist at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre in the Netherlands. He realized that in his home country, Romania, the existence of two very distinct ethnic groups provided an opportunity to see the hand of natural selection in the human genome. A thousand years ago, the Rroma people—commonly known as gypsies—migrated into Europe from north India. But they intermarried little with European Romanians and thus have very distinct genetic backgrounds. Yet, by living in the same place, both of these groups experienced the same conditions, including the Black Plague, which did not reach northern India. So the researchers sought genes favored by natural selection by seeking similarities in the Rroma and European Romanians that are not found in North Indians.

Celebrating differences. The migration of gypsies from India 1000 years ago (see map) set the stage for a telling study about how diseases can influence the genome.

Celebrating differences. The migration of gypsies from India 1000 years ago (see map) set the stage for a telling study about how diseases can influence the genome.

Netea; evolutionary biologist Jaume Bertranpetit of Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain; and their colleagues looked for differences at more than 196,000 places in the genomes of 100 Romanians of European descent and 100 Rroma. For comparison, the researchers also cataloged these differences in 500 individuals who lived in northwestern India, where the Rroma came from. Then they analyzed which genes had changed the most to see which were most favored by selection.

Genetically, the Rroma are still quite similar to the northwestern Indians, even though they have lived side by side with the Romanians for a millennium, the team found. But there were 20 genes in the Rroma and the Romanians that had changes that were not seen in the Indians’ versions of those genes, Netea and his colleagues report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. These genes “were positively selected for in the Romanians and in the gypsies but not in the Indians,” Netea explains. “It’s a very strong signal.”

Those genes included one for skin pigmentation, one involved in inflammation, and one associated with susceptibility to autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. But the ones Netea and Bertranpetit were most excited about were a cluster of three immune system genes found on chromosome 4. These genes code for toll-like receptors, proteins which latch on to harmful bacteria in the body and launch a defensive response. “We knew they must be important for host defense,” Netea says.

What events in history might have favored these versions of the genes in gypsies and Romanians, but not in Indians? Netea and his colleagues tested the ability of the toll-like receptors to react to Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that caused the Black Death. They found that the strength of the immune response varied depending on the exact sequence of the toll-like receptor genes.

Netea and Bertranpetit propose that the Rroma and European Romanians came to have the same versions of these immune system genes because of the evolutionary pressure exerted byY. pestis. Other Europeans, whose ancestors also faced and survived the Black Death, carried similar changes in the toll-like receptor genes. But people from China and Africa—two other places the Black Death did not reach—did not have these changes. (There have been multiple plagues throughout history around the world, but none have been so deadly as the Black Death, which killed an estimated one in every four Europeans, and so exerted very strong selection.) The similarities in the other genes were likely caused by other conditions experienced by Rroma and Europeans, but not Indians.

“The use of two populations living in the same geographic area is very clever,” says human population geneticist Oscar Lao of Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, who was not involved in the study. “This experimental evidence is very important,” he adds. It shows that the Black Death bacterium does indeed interact with the proteins coded for by the genes favored by natural selection. “That should be the goal for all those type of analyses.”

“It’s a nice hypothesis that they are putting forward,” agrees Lluis Quintana-Murci, a human population geneticist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris who was not involved in the study. The genetic changes may have modern-day effects. “The presence of these particular versions of these genes may give the evolutionary basis for why certain populations are more at risk” for certain types of diseases, says Douglas Golenbock, an immunologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. “The side effect seems to be that the Europeans have a more proinflammatory immune system than those who have never experienced Black Death.”

However, Lao and Quintana-Murci wonder if the convergence in these genes might be explained another way. It’s possible that these favorable versions were introduced into the Rroma by interbreeding between the Rroma and the Romanians, they suggest. Additional sequencing of the converged genetic regions should answer this question, Quintana-Murci says. It’s also important to check how these toll-like receptors respond to other deadly bacteria to see if other diseases might have been the cause of the changes. That will likely happen, Quintana-Murci adds. “This will inspire other labs to see if other bacterial infections could also explain the [selection].”


%d bloggers like this: