Imagine walking down a crowded street, knowing that one out of every three people you meet will die before the week is out. That was the reality of the Black Death when it swept through Europe in the 14th century – a virulent plague that cut a swath through a third to a half of the population.
Mass burial pits became common as societies tried to cope with the massive numbers of victims. While these burial grounds remain a testament to the destructive power of viral infections, they have also become a source of information that might help mitigate future plagues.
McMaster anthropologist Hendrik Poinar worked with a team to extract genetic material from the teeth of five plague victims. They painstakingly reconstructed the heavily damaged DNA, allowing them to map the complete genome of the microorganism that caused the Black Death.
“We discovered that this bacterial strain of yersinia pestis is the ancestor of all modern plagues we have today,” says Poinar. “Every outbreak across the globe stems from a descendant of the Black Death.”
Poinar’s discovery provides the tools to better understand how and why the Black Death pandemic happened – tools that can be used to fight modern plague outbreaks, and ultimately lead to new ways to fight infectious disease.
In fact, Poinar is also researching a current pandemic – the Human Immunodeficiency Virus that causes AIDS. He is collaborating on developing new methods to disentangle the origins, evolution and migration of HIV from its origins in Africa to its now ubiquitous presence.
Whether it’s an ancient plague or the current AIDS pandemic, Poinar provides the science that fills in metaphorical and actual gaps from our genetic past. This leads to a better understanding of our present, and points the way toward solutions for our future.
**Major funders for this research include Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.