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Scientists Sequence Black Death Bacteria

samzenpus posted more than 3 years ago | from the what-could-go-wrong? dept.

Biotech 265

First time accepted submitter Quince alPillan writes "The bacteria behind the Black Death has a very unusual history. Its ancestor is an unassuming soil bacterium and the current strains of Yersinia pestis still infects thousands of people annually, but no longer causes the suite of horrifying symptoms associated with the medieval plagues. The radical differences, in fact, had led some to suggest that we had been blaming the wrong bacteria. Now, researchers have obtained DNA from some of London's plague victims, and confirmed that Y. pestis appears to be to blame. But the sequences also suggest that the strains of bacteria we see today may be different from the ones that rampaged through Europe."

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I have to do it (2, Funny)

slartibartfastatp (613727) | more than 3 years ago | (#37254772)

Blackteria

Re:I have to do it (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255386)

African-Americanteria

Re:I have to do it (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255774)

bacteria of color

The Black Death isn't coming back (4, Informative)

elrous0 (869638) | more than 3 years ago | (#37254780)

the Black Death was ugly. Imagine half the population of your entire city or town dying off in 1 or 2 years. Nasty business that.

But, that said, people really should take a more reasoned approach to disease alarmism these days. All this "This latest pandemic is going to kill us ALL!!" Chicken Little shit gets tiresome. The Littles always cite the Black Death and 1918 pandemic [wikipedia.org] as if that's what we could expect from a pandemic today--all without noting the MASSIVE improvements in sanitation, medical science, vaccine research, etc. that make this scale of pandemic highly unlikely in the modern era.

The Black Death could have been stopped in its tracks if those 14th-century peasants had even an inkling of the basic medical/sanitation knowledge that even the biggest idiots among us know today. Basic stuff like "Wash your hands regularly," "Cover your mouth when you cough," and "Don't let your goddamned flea-infested farm animals wander around through your living area, moron" are surprisingly recent bits of common sense that the developed world today takes for granted. Of course, there are still some third-world shitholes where people think that a witch-doctor rubbing feces on an open wound will ward off the evil spirits. But even those places usually have a FEW among them with some basic sense (and soap).

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (4, Informative)

phrackwulf (589741) | more than 3 years ago | (#37254882)

There is a legitimate point to considering the technological ability to both communicate more rapidly about a highly infectious disease and approach a new and lethal strain with modern decontamination and medical systems. That doesn't rule out the possibility of certain very specialized and nasty toxins such as Bacillus anthracis and other hybrid biological weapons. The real danger is in a strain of bacteria that can infect a host, cause relatively mild and temporary symptoms, then reinfect and spread after a period of time leading to a lethal toxicity in the effected patient and the people they have probably come into contact with. Obviously, the really virulent diseases like Ebola Zaire are so nasty that they burn themselves out fairly rapidly because the infected population dies before they can spread the virus. As our knowledge of DNA sequencing and protein structures increases though, we start to arrive at a set of tools that could lead to truly frightening weapons and bacterial/viral hybrids. Diseases that can switch on and off based on environmental triggers. Or how about a bacteria that multiplies rapidly and uncontrollably under a certain PSI of air pressure in one's lungs?

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1, Flamebait)

Dunbal (464142) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255216)

The real danger is in a strain of bacteria that can infect a host, cause relatively mild and temporary symptoms, then reinfect and spread after a period of time leading to a lethal toxicity in the effected patient and the people they have probably come into contact with.

You then went on to talk about Ebola, which is a virus - so fair game: The REAL danger is a virus that infects people and shows virtually no symptoms for many years, and then kills them. Oh wait, we already have one, it's called HIV. Do you have HIV? No? How do you know? When was your last series of tests? Better yet, there is no cure, only treatment. Which means you can go on and potentially infect people for the rest of your life-span provided you can afford the treatment. This way you get a mortal disease that is endemic within the population. It's only a matter of time before we are all infected. Conspiracy theories aside, "big pharma" must be excited as hell.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255540)

"Do you have HIV? No? How do you know?"

I know because I don't have butt seks or shoot stuff into my veins. Simple, really.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

Bucky24 (1943328) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255584)

HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids. So there are a dozen different ways you can become infected, not just by the two you mentioned, though those are the most common.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

rubycodez (864176) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255588)

No, only certain demographic groups have the rising incidence of infection. For example, if you are white male who doesn't engage in homosexual activity (e.g. taking it in the ass with a penis), your chances of getting AID are mighty slim.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255872)

You forgot one thing. You also have to be circumcised to prevent the unsustainable spreading of AID. It just kills the US budget!

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255900)

It's not the eighties anymore, dude. In the west, HIV is more prevalent in females than males.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255924)

Because women don't get HIV. right.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

CPTreese (2114124) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255798)

It's only a matter of time before we are all infected.

When I was in the Army I got tested every year, still clean. Where in the world did you get the idea that it's only a matter of time? If you have a monogamous relationship with someone and don't stick random needles into yourself it's damn near impossible to get infected not "inevitable."

I tried doing some research on Magic Johnson to find out about his current status. From what I can tell, if he still has HIV, it is so minute that it is undetectable. It seems to be circular reasoning to say that HIV is incurable therefore since Magic was infected he still has it because it's incurable. Perhaps I don't understand the disease well enough, but if someone doesn't have a detectable instance of virus x can it still be said that he/she still has the virus x?

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (2)

mlts (1038732) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255232)

We have had some victories over disease -- the "swine flue" for example was slated to be a pandemic on the order of SARS. However, through quick action, it had less of an effect than the generic flu does each year.

However, we are losing the front in other ways. Take bedbugs for example. After WWII and DDT, they pretty much were removed from our existence until 2-3 years ago. Now they are back with a vengeance, and there are no real effective bedbug treatments. Of course, there is the good old flu which hits every year and nothing has stopped that. Flu shots mitigate the effect, but preventing it from spreading every year hasn't been done yet.

If a virulent strain couples itself with a long incubation period (which means that quarantine controls take longer to get in place), there is a good chance that we could get a deadly pandemic.

Of course, this all is assuming an infection is natural. Man-made is another story -- it doesn't take much other than guaranteed power to have the ability to have a bug farm, and there are a lot of psychopathic nation leaders out there who would love to test their research should their power be threatened.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (3, Insightful)

Rob the Bold (788862) | more than 3 years ago | (#37254892)

All this "This latest pandemic is going to kill us ALL!!" Chicken Little shit gets tiresome. The Littles always cite the Black Death and 1918 pandemic [wikipedia.org] as if that's what we could expect from a pandemic today--all without noting the MASSIVE improvements in sanitation, medical science, vaccine research, etc. that make this scale of pandemic highly unlikely in the modern era.

I don't think I read the same summary and article as you did.

Stopping the black death (1)

maroberts (15852) | more than 3 years ago | (#37254900)

Would not have been as easy as you say - the livestock had to be in the towns and cities for the simple reason that refrigeration wasn't around, so any meat that wasn't riddled with worms, flies and mold had to be from fresh kills. That obviously leads to dung and stuff, which before modern day sewer systems, roadsweepers and refuse collection didn't go away

(Yes I know the Romans had sewers and refuse and dung collection, but most medieval cities found the volume of shit and refuse simply overwhelmed them).

As far as I know a decent 'flu pandemic (and I'm not talking about bird 'flu) would have almost the same effect as the 1918 one, assuming it struck during say a major worldwide depression and had a decent number of weakened population as a transmission medium,

Fun with sigs... (1)

Tsingi (870990) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255130)

The greatest trick the devil pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist -- Verbal Kint

The greatest trick a god ever pulled was convincing the world that he did exist. -- Tsingi. (aka, the devil)

Re:Fun with sigs... (1)

MightyYar (622222) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255274)

I've always wondered about that quote, too. The only people who believe in the Christian version of the devil also believe in the Christian version of God. I find it very hard to believe that there are a lot of Christian-God believers who simultaneously don't believe in the Christian devil. Thus, the devil is not very successful at making Christians believe he doesn't exist, and non-Christians don't get into heaven anyway.

Of course, in this case the quote comes from a stupid movie, so that should be my answer - but something like it has been said for a much longer time. And all the while, the number of Christians has grown, so it's complete BS.

Re:Fun with sigs... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255430)

>>non-Christians don't get into heaven anyway

That's not true at all. Christians believe that God decides - there is no absolute prerequisite according to the bible. Simply put - the decision is in God's hands, and not our own.

Re:Fun with sigs... (1)

MightyYar (622222) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255598)

Hmmm, well let's just say that there seems to be diversity in this opinion. I was told by a minister that I couldn't enter heaven unless I was baptized, but your mileage may vary.

Re:Fun with sigs... (1)

Bucky24 (1943328) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255630)

Personally I believe the same, but a lot of "hardcore" Christians like to think that they're the only ones who will get in.

Re:Fun with sigs... (1)

Tsingi (870990) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255622)

Of course, in this case the quote comes from a stupid movie.

Sure, it's a stupid quote, but it's a great movie.

You take that back or Keyser Soze might just appear at your door. THEN you'll be sorry.

Re:Fun with sigs... (1)

Jeremy Erwin (2054) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255664)

Verbel Kint was just messing with you. Considering the movie's twist ending, it's "in character."

I find it very hard to believe that there are a lot of Christian-God believers who simultaneously don't believe in the Christian devil.
No one said that belief was always going to be easy. Perhaps your faith in the Christian concept of the "Church Universal" is being tested.

Re:Fun with sigs... (1)

MightyYar (622222) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255842)

Perhaps your faith in the Christian concept of the "Church Universal" is being tested.

Ahhh, touche!

Re:Fun with sigs... (1)

Mindcontrolled (1388007) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255724)

Well, the "Christian" devil is a very thin concept, theologically speaking. Quite a lot of the more liberal denominations don't take it that serious - it is, after all, quite illogical, going from the almighty, all-knowing, all-good God premise. An "adversary" doesn't quite fit into that. Then again, not much does, but hell... Anyway, the more liberal theologists take it more allegorical, together with the fall, as a metaphor for the quite observable general fucked-upness of human nature.

The "non-Christians don't get into heaven"-thing also is not that common - it stems from the absolute rejection of work ethics - i.e. being saved by doing good works - by some of the more fundamentalist American evangelicals.

Re:Fun with sigs... (1)

Schemat1c (464768) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255596)

The greatest trick the devil pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist -- Verbal Kint

The greatest trick a god ever pulled was convincing the world that he did exist. -- Tsingi. (aka, the devil)

God pulling tricks, that puts an odd image in my mind.

Re:Fun with sigs... (1)

elrous0 (869638) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255880)

God pulling tricks, that puts an odd image in my mind.

He punked Job pretty good. But then, he would probably say the devil made him do it.

Re:Fun with sigs... (1)

Mindcontrolled (1388007) | more than 3 years ago | (#37256010)

Loki, Coyote - there's a lot of precedents. The "trickster god" is not a particularly uncommon concept. No wonder, given the state of the world.

Re:Stopping the black death (2)

gnick (1211984) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255152)

Just as a point of interest, we STILL haven't stopped the Black Death. Sure we know how to treat it and how it spreads to help slow it, but there are still cases in New Mexico every year. And that's the US - Not where the Plague was really partying. It's a tough little bug and probably worth studying even if it isn't the huge threat it once was.

Re:Stopping the black death (1)

Dunbal (464142) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255260)

It's normal flora on armadillos and some other critters, if I recall correctly. You have as much chance eradicating it as you do getting rid of "Staphylococcus epidermidis".

Re:Stopping the black death (1)

Gilmoure (18428) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255734)

Bubonicon 43 [bubonicon.com] just wrapped up here in Abq.

Land of the Flea; Home of the Plague.

Re:Stopping the black death (1)

rubycodez (864176) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255516)

nonsense, the knowledge of how to preserve meat for months has been around for thousands of years. Salt, jerky, smoking, etc.

Re:Stopping the black death (1)

Mindcontrolled (1388007) | more than 3 years ago | (#37256048)

True, but people still wanted fresh meat - and that had to be close. Nothing against salted pork, corned beef, air dried pata negra, a decently made beef jerky - but every now and then you want a roast from fresh meat.

It's not even that easy (1)

Moraelin (679338) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255564)

It's not even that easy. The bug was not carried by dung or flies, but by fleas and rats. Even if you had a modern sewage system, rats were and still are not extinct. In fact, their populations seems to have grown with the human population.

What seems to have finally killed the plague in Europe was that the vulnerable and once dominant species of rat was also handicapped enough by it to be replaced with a better rat. (Yeah, sometimes nature makes a better mouse trap, and then makes a better mouse to defeat it;))

Sanitation, washing hands, etc, didn't have much to do with it.

Re:Stopping the black death (1)

wagnerrp (1305589) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255856)

Would not have been as easy as you say - the livestock had to be in the towns and cities for the simple reason that refrigeration wasn't around, so any meat that wasn't riddled with worms, flies and mold had to be from fresh kills.

Drying, salting, and smoking have been around for millennia, and were well understood during the Middle Ages. Refrigeration is not the only way to safely store food.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

DigiShaman (671371) | more than 3 years ago | (#37254918)

I'm sure you know this but for those that don't, they didn't bury the bodies, they burned them. Too many bodies to dispose of in a timely manor. That, and the stench was unbearable.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

EdZ (755139) | more than 3 years ago | (#37254992)

They did both. Many bodies were cremated, but there were certainly mass graves, and probably open mass graves (I'm sure after the first few times you uncover the body pit you just give up on covering it until it fills up).

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (3, Funny)

robthebloke (1308483) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255098)

Very true. To recover the corpses of the plauge victims, they dug up some ash, unburnt it to get back to original bodies, and were able to extract samples of the original bacterium from that. It's remarkable what technology can do these days don't you think?

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (3, Funny)

Dog-Cow (21281) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255184)

I think I saw that on an episode of CSI:Miami!

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

MightyYar (622222) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255284)

Shhhhhhhh! People will be on to where Nescafe comes from.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255416)

You had me up until "unburnt". My god I have never laughed so hard at work. Well done.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

rubycodez (864176) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255674)

Separating the reanimation bacterium dna from that of the black plague proved the most troublesome step, but fortunately they were able to contact an experienced undead dna sample collector in the housewares section of a local department store. His methodology included:

*cocking lever action carbine* C'mon she-bitch, let's go!

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (2)

mr1911 (1942298) | more than 3 years ago | (#37254958)

All this "This latest pandemic is going to kill us ALL!!" Chicken Little shit gets tiresome.

Yeah, but your favorite news anchor coming on saying, "a few people got sick on the other side of the world and there is absolutely nothing for you to worry about and it is nonsense we are even covering this story anyway" does not translate into a full news program for people to stay glued to and soak up all of those advertising minutes and associated dollars back to the network.

News is about advertising and profit, not news.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (5, Funny)

mcmonkey (96054) | more than 3 years ago | (#37254990)

the Black Death was ugly. Imagine half the population of your entire city or town dying off in 1 or 2 years. Nasty business that.

But imagine the morning commute. Or finding a parking spot at the mall. Getting a last minute table at your favorite restaurant.

Just saying.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255536)

But what about Groupon?!? OH EM GEE!!!

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255702)

the Black Death was ugly. Imagine half the population of your entire city or town dying off in 1 or 2 years. Nasty business that.

But imagine the morning commute. Or finding a parking spot at the mall. Getting a last minute table at your favorite restaurant.

Just saying.

Image if the virus only preyed on people with an IQ less than 100. Or religious nutjobs? Or {insert group here}?

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

xs650 (741277) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255846)

You are definitely a "the cup is half full" type of person

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (2)

elrous0 (869638) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255940)

But imagine the morning commute.

Actually, many historians argue that the Black Death did actually help a lot of former serfs and peasants finally own land and actually advance themselves quite well in the aftermath.

On second thought, everyone stop washing their hands.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

cmdr_klarg (629569) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255004)

All this "This latest pandemic is going to kill us ALL!!" Chicken Little shit gets tiresome.

Firestone's Law of Forecasting: Chicken Little only has to right once.

Yes, we should stop freaking out everytime someone gets a sniffle, but at the same time let's not treat it as a "boy who cried wolf" situation either.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

cmdr_klarg (629569) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255060)

Forgot to add:

Yes, sanitation and medical knowledge has made great leaps in effectiveness, but we have also greatly expanded on how far and fast we can spread disease due to advances in transportation. Other than that I pretty much agree with elrous0.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

ByOhTek (1181381) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255012)

I started reading your post, and halfway through the first line, I expected to read an annoying article on chiropractic care, and subluxations. Obviously, didn't look at the author, just the text.

I was pleasantly surprised when no such garbage came up.

*ahem*
Anyway, people do panic a bit much these days. As far as hygiene back then goes - people didn't have a good reason, or their culture, the experiences, needed to provide them with the knowledge that such hygienic behavior is important.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255144)

Are you kidding?

I'm waiting with baited breath for good ol' Bob to show up and tell us how the Blakinstein bacteria (that's frenkentein blakteria) these scientist are making will escape the lab and spread subluxations to the world. But don't worry because a vegan diet and Chiropractic can stop these synthetic microorganisms, where big pharmo will fail.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

rossdee (243626) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255636)

"But don't worry because a vegan diet and Chiropractic can stop these synthetic microorganisms, where big pharmo will fail."

But what happens when the diease spreads to Vega?

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255034)

...there are still some third-world shitholes where people think that a witch-doctor rubbing feces on an open wound will ward off the evil spirits.

2 girls 1 cup?

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

aliquis (678370) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255056)

"Cover your mouth when you cough"

Hey! It may be 700 years later but some gross somewhat old dude cough.. and cough.. and cough.. and cough.. while I was just really wishing that the cashier could hurry up and finish of with my goods since he was behind me.

Then I started to do it. Got a pulse of pain coming every now and then in the left side of my head and was in quite poor condition. Was diagnosed pneumonia which antibiotics solved. Earlier the coughs was very dry and my speak broke up after a couple of words because I got so dry in my throat. But even now 2-3 weeks later I still cough every now and then for no obvious reason. ... also I got another infected now, in the shape of a 8x8 cm inflammation under the skin or something such. Hurray for me!

Anyhow. I think you give the idiots too much credit ;D, single persons may not be that sanitary/hygienic either.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255092)

speech
became so

I know ..

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255458)

I'm sorry, it's hypochondria.

There's no known cure, and most patients diagnosed with hypochondria have only about ten to twenty thousand days left to live.

The trees aren't coming back (1)

Tsingi (870990) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255068)

If humanity is to survive, we must pledge to eliminate all carbon dioxide from our atmosphere by 2030

Isn't that going a bit far?

Trees breathe it in, we breathe it out, we aren't going to get rid of ALL of it, nor do we want to.

Or perhaps you were trying to be funny?

Re:The trees aren't coming back (1)

nedlohs (1335013) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255256)

Or perhaps you were trying to be funny?

Ya think!?

Sherlock Holmes is in awe.

Re:The trees aren't coming back (1)

Tsingi (870990) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255512)

Or perhaps you were trying to be funny?

Ya think!?

Sherlock Holmes is in awe.

Sherlock Holmes doesn't live on the eastern seaboard. If he did, he wouldn't think your jokes are any funnier than I do.

Re:The trees aren't coming back (1)

nedlohs (1335013) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255990)

I wasn't making a joke.

Re:The trees aren't coming back (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255520)

These days it isn't as obvious as it ought to be.

Re:The trees aren't coming back (1)

Bucky24 (1943328) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255694)

This is slashdot. Generally if a sig is something really obviously stupid like that then it's meant as sarcasm. Generally. There are some stupid people on here.

Re:The trees aren't coming back (1)

Mindcontrolled (1388007) | more than 3 years ago | (#37256066)

Actually, generally, if a sig is something really obviously stupid like the one in question, it is meant as a straw man attack. At least these days on /.

Actually, even that doesn't do it justice (1)

Moraelin (679338) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255070)

Actually even that description doesn't do it justice. Imagine that up to 80% of your town dies, and within weeks at that. Mortality differed from place to place and outbreak to outbreak, but generally, the tighter packed a place was, the bigger the casualties. At the larger scale of villages mortality was lower -- though even there, many villages were COMPLETELY wiped out -- but in cities, getting casualties between 50% and 75% of the total population in an outbreak wasn't unusual.

Oh, and in excruciating pain at that, as it caused the necrosis of some very sensitive spots. We have description of people listening to their town scream in agony all night, and people jumping off bridges or rooftops just to end the incredible pain. And, yeah, they didn't even have ipods to cover that constant soundtrack.

Also imagine that that happens every few years.

And that its first symptoms are something as common as sneezing. So, yeah, just being around someone with an allergy could cause you to shit your pants in terror each time they sneeze, because it COULD be the start of such a horrible epidemic.

Also imagine that you know that if you catch it, the only treatment known at the time was to board your doors and windows for two weeks and leave you to die in there, one way or another.

Yeah, it was very nasty business.

Re:Actually, even that doesn't do it justice (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255538)

For an excellent (science-)fictionalized account of living (well, kinda) through the Black Death, see Connie Willis's Hugo and Nebula winning The Doomsday Book. Connie does excellent research, and is a wonderful writer. If you want facts and figures, there are plenty of sources. If you want to feel what it was like (admittedly, from a 21st century influenced point of view), read Doomsday Book.

- Alastair

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255072)

basic medical/sanitation knowledge that even the biggest idiots among us know today. Basic stuff like "Wash your hands regularly,"

Interact with society at all much?

Judging by public restrooms, very few people understand basic stuff like "wash your hands regularly".

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

H0p313ss (811249) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255118)

Very well said sir. Never a mod point when you need one.

The Black Death might be BROUGHT back (0)

wisebabo (638845) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255140)

While everything you said is true about the vast improvements in sanitation, public health etc. you're missing two points.

1) Some of these improvements may have made our environment TOO CLEAN, we are not exposing ourselves to enough natural pathogens to challenge our immune systems and build up resistance. I've heard that one possible reason why the incidence of asthma has soared in the developing world is because children no longer play so much in dirt and get exposed to the bacteria there. Then, their immune systems become hyperactive. (I also seem to remember an article in Sci-Am about how Polio paradoxically became widely spread due to the clean drinking water or something. Hence the pictures of all those kids in "Iron Lungs" before the development of a vaccine).

2) If the scientists who sequenced the genome put it on the Internet (or if it stolen), that could be enough to build a good biological weapon. Now that Craig Venter has demonstrated the ability of creating life FROM SCRATCH isn't it feasible to create a new bacterium from the code downloaded from the Internet? Perhaps with some changes to make it more "effective"? It is no longer enough to physically sequester the pathogens in a secure location as the U.S. and Russia have done with smallpox, now just the data itself could lead to a virulent agent. (Or, knowing what to look for, it is probably much easier for a third party to duplicate these scientists' research). Perhaps, in the future, scientists who resurrect or create such dangerous micro-organisms will be required to create, as part of their work, complementary anti-bodies or iRNA sequences or something so that we would have a running start in preparing a biological defense if things got loose.

Re:The Black Death might be BROUGHT back (1)

Dog-Cow (21281) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255242)

From the sheer paranoia in your second point, I think you've already been infected with something. I hope it's not contagious.

Re:The Black Death might be BROUGHT back (1)

vlm (69642) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255378)

I've heard that one possible reason why the incidence of asthma has soared in the developing world is because children no longer play so much in dirt and get exposed to the bacteria there. Then, their immune systems become hyperactive.

Hmmm. I donno about that. Went thru quite a bit of contaminant analysis when my son had "an allergy" but we couldn't figure out what. (turned out to be wheat, verified via blood test; why they couldn't run the blood test first before analyzing our environment mystifies me) Look at what spews out of a smokestack, or a decrepit diesel bus exhaust, or the literal stench of curing plastic inside a new particle board kitchen, then get back to me on the environment being too clean. The air inside an average house, or even outside a non-rural house, is pretty stinking filthy compared to a rural environment a century ago...

Add in plenty of "intentional" contaminants like unventilated kitchens, spray paint, smoking various substances, strange paint chemistries that didn't exist just decades ago...

Another example, I think I inhale more plasticizer fumes in a day, than people did in a lifetime just a century ago.

Re:The Black Death might be BROUGHT back (2)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255592)

Venter didn't create life from scratch. His team rebuilt a bacterial genome out of pre-existing parts and threw them into a pre-existing chassis. To provide out an ever-faithful computer analogy, he basically installed Gentoo on some Mycoplasma genitalium. It wasn't that exciting, just more laborious.

Which brings me to the second point: that much DNA synthesis and construct assembly is absurdly expensive. Even to transfer the dangerous parts into another bacterium via a plasmid vector would be unwieldly labourious, mostly because you'd have to figure out what the parts are, first.

Which brings me to the third point: it is infinitely cheaper just to buy more traditional forms of weaponry than to swallow the startup cost for biological warfare. Even to poison an entire town's drinking water with lethal amounts of Brevetoxin [wikipedia.org] would be cheaper. You can basically chill out now.

P.S., Caucasians probably have serious herd immunity against the most famous strains by now and don't even know it. Even if you get the work perfect, its reliability would still be a bad gamble.

Re:The Black Death might be BROUGHT back (2)

rubycodez (864176) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255808)

Asthma incidence has strong correlation to having parents who smoke. Allergy incidence to those who were not breastfed but consumed formula.

Craig Venter did NOT "create life from scratch", he put a modified Mycoplasma genitalium genome into a mycoplasma. His team "stripped down" the genome to find a minimal set that would support life, then added some "nonsense" like encoded people's names and a web site address. Then they sythesized that sequence and injected it. To put it another way, just because you download a kernel from kernel.org, rip out everything that won't support your particular machine, compile and install it...doesn't make you a Linus who "built his own kernel from scratch".

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (4, Insightful)

dkleinsc (563838) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255146)

Of course, there are still some third-world shitholes where people think that a witch-doctor rubbing feces on an open wound will ward off the evil spirits.

I'm not sure where you got that image of how those sorts of shaman/healer types do their jobs. They'll usually go with attempts at herbal treatment that have a chance of working that is slightly better than a placebo, based on learning from previous generations who figured out that rubbing feces on wounds was a good way to cause the patient to get even sicker and die. They tend to pick their herbs for apparent effectiveness, and often have chosen things with the right chemical compound or physiological effects, just not at as high a concentration or as good a delivery system as Western medicines.

Those healers from isolated tribes today, and our cavemen before us, were the brainy folks in their societies, and there's no reason to think they were any stupider than we are. They are just working with very limited tools, and are quite ignorant.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (2)

jfruhlinger (470035) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255178)

the Black Death was ugly. Imagine half the population of your entire city or town dying off in 1 or 2 years. Nasty business that.

While the psychological trauma must have been horriffic, in aggregate economic terms Europe actually went through an upswing in the generation after the Black Death, believe it or not. Daily life improved for peasants in particular, who suddenly found their labor in great demand (both because there were fewer of them and there was a sudden surfeit of unclaimed land).

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

CapuchinSeven (2266542) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255230)

Also, don't kill cats because you think they are the devils creatures, they are killing the rats. Poor 'puds.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

bberens (965711) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255258)

Okay, so I didn't see what your name was, but I was totally expecting your second paragraph to discuss the benefits of chiropractic care with respect to the immune system. Dr. Bob has trolled me one too many times. :(

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255358)

I'm no historian, but I really doubt your thesis that people were idiots in the 14th century. I think people knew they didn't want to be around filth just as much back then as they do now. There just wasn't much they could do about it. Plumbing wasn't available, at least not to the average person, and even today people can have a hard time getting rid of pests in their house. And where do you get clean water to wash your hands when everyone has to dump their filth in the streets or in gutters that will eventually flow into the waterways?

See for instance: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12847529

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

aliquis (678370) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255486)

Imagine half the population of your entire city or town dying off in 1 or 2 years.

How would I ever notice? Less litter around the trash cans? Foul smells from the stairway? Longer search times for a match setup in Starcraft II?

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

CPTreese (2114124) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255578)

love your sig! I've doing my best by holding my breath in longer and longer intervals

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

Dr. Gamera (1548195) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255614)

The Littles always cite the Black Death and 1918 pandemic [wikipedia.org] as if that's what we could expect from a pandemic today--all without noting the MASSIVE improvements in sanitation, medical science, vaccine research, etc. that make this scale of pandemic highly unlikely in the modern era. Black Death -- bacterial -- likely not a big deal in the age of antibiotics. 1918 pandemic -- viral -- the healthier you are, the more likely it is that your own cytokine storm will kill you -- might be even more of a big deal today, especially with jet airplanes helping to spread the disease.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (2)

aliquis (678370) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255624)

all without noting the MASSIVE improvements in sanitation, medical science, vaccine research, etc. that make this scale of pandemic highly unlikely in the modern era.

Except you use antibiotics in your animals over in the US.

I read that around half your meat and poultry Staphylococcus aureus [wikipedia.org] which is quite awesome and well protected as is. But what's worse is that half of those was the Methicillin resistant variant [wikipedia.org] .

I'm not educated enough for in fast new vaccines can be made for viruses and if they can for all. Considering how far they have come with HIV I guess it's not always that easy.

I read antibiotics had increased our average life span by decades. But what do you do when they don't work against the bacteria?

So fucking retarded to over-use them, though rather convenient to use them when you need them, but it's always a risk for the future efficiency.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (2)

cdrguru (88047) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255634)

Ha. The Black Death seems to have mutated somewhat or humans have become more resistant in the last thousand years or so. It is clearly much less of a threat than it was in 1350.

However, today we have far less isolation than we did in 1350. It was possible for a community to simply close itself off from the world for a period of time. It was also possible that in some parts of Europe there just weren't any infected visitors coming to call. Not so today.

I recently read a book where there were three outbreaks of an infectious disease in three widely separated parts of the US. Given air travel today should that really happen with anything as communicative as the Black Death we would be looking at a global catastrophe. Read The Stand by Stephen King? Yes, it is a novel and a fantasy but it clearly outlines what could happen with a flu-like virus that kills and is in no way out of the question. It could happen.

If "bird flu" turns into a deadly pandemic we are unlikely to fare as well as 1918. Between the increased travel spreading an infection widely before it is even recognized and the interdependence of communities it is very unlikely that there will be any spot on Earth that isn't touched by such a pandemic. There simply are no places where nobody goes any longer - they are going to get deliveries because they are not independent any longer. Should something get loose (and the odds are it will happen sooner or later) we better hope for better management than anyone has so far predicted either as a government study or in fiction.

I'm laying odds on huge mismanagement myself.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

ivoras (455934) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255722)

The Black Death could have been stopped in its tracks if those 14th-century peasants had even an inkling of the basic medical/sanitation knowledge that even the biggest idiots among us know today. Basic stuff like "Wash your hands regularly," "Cover your mouth when you cough," and "Don't let your goddamned flea-infested farm animals wander around through your living area, moron" are surprisingly recent bits of common sense that the developed world today takes for granted. Of course, there are still some third-world shitholes where people think that a witch-doctor rubbing feces on an open wound will ward off the evil spirits. But even those places usually have a FEW among them with some basic sense (and soap).

Unfortunately for the peasants and the third-worlders, there are some huge technological prereqisites:

  • You need clean water to wash hands and wounds with - the majority of surface water in "black africa" is contaminated - not by Evil Western Chenicals but by feces and germs
  • Covering your mouth when caughing is well and good but to have any resemblance of general care and isolation (i.e. hospitals) you need something to cover your mouth *with*, ranging from clean cloth (see previous issue) to gauzes, bandages and sterile equipment
  • Animals in Europe were in houses often for very simple reasons: a) they are warm (remember, the "warm Europe" trend basically started with the 20th century) and b) that was the only option to keep them away from thieves

Basically, I agree with you, but want to emphasize that the ideas need infrastructure.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255874)

While I agree that a massive, deadly pandemic is quite unlikely today, I doubt the peasants could have done much to prevent the Black Death even if they had the basic knowledge we all have now. My understanding is that it was carried by rats, which the peasants had practically no control over. When the rats died, the fleas jumped host. Even with knowledge, about the only thing they could have done is fled as soon as they noticed the rats dying.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

starless (60879) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255942)

I think people knew about basic sanitation in 1918.
Also, we still don't have very good vaccines against flu.

Re:The Black Death isn't coming back (1)

tgd (2822) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255944)

There are five to six billion people living in parts of the world without the kind of care you are talking about.

And, we have jets.

The reality is, a disease that rapidly kills and spreads easily (like Black Death) could easily wipe out hundreds of millions of people today. BD killed so quickly that infections were self-limiting. Now, it can spread far further than your local village before people even start showing symptoms.

First pestis? (1)

maroberts (15852) | more than 3 years ago | (#37254806)

Or not?

That's racist! (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37254916)

Sure, sure the Black death. People always blaming the black man for your problems. Fucking racists.

Re:That's racist! (1)

cpotoso (606303) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255168)

And think about what the aztecs thought of those bearded hippies coming and killing 90% of them (small pox)? Intolerance at its worst :)

Academic consensus on the causes. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255078)

"The authors conclude that this provides a clear indication that a single type of bacteria has been responsible for the Black Death and several other plague outbreaks, and is still causing modern diseases."

That's an interesting claim. As I understand it, the verdict is still out on what caused the Black Death. There's undeniable evidence that plague was present at the time, and they certainly found marks on bones in mass graves to indicate that some of the dead suffered from it. However, as I understand it, there's concern about whether that adequately explains the Black Death. Supposedly the epidemic swept through Europe in several phases, targeting different populations and with slightly different symptoms, and it moved very quickly, crossing borders and water at an alarming pace. That doesn't seem to describe the profile of plague, and as I understand it the academic consensus in recent years has been that there may have been something viral at work, or several different factors involved. Plague alone doesn't seem adequate here.

Painfully obvious? (1)

geekmux (1040042) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255156)

"...But the sequences also suggest that the strains of bacteria we see today may be different from the ones that rampaged through Europe."

Uh, "may" be different? Is there anyone in academia even remotely questioning this? Bacteria replicate in a matter of hours. How many generations of bacteria have turned over(read mutated) in the last few hundred years? This should not come as a surprise to anyone really.

Not necessarily (5, Interesting)

Moraelin (679338) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255342)

Well, the actual question is: exactly how different. Yes, it's clear that some mutations are inevitable, but unless there's some clear evolutionary pressure, you may still find a bacterium that works by and large just like its ancestors.

Now it may seem that for a parasitic bacterium, not killing its host would be an advantage. And indeed in some other bacteria we can see a sort of a survival-of-the-sickest kind of selection.

But this is a soil bacterium. If it ends up in some host and kills it, worst that can happen is that it ends up back in the soil. It has nothing to lose by killing its host, and in fact everything to gain, since once the host is dead there's no more immune system killing the bacteria.

This kind of bacteria that have nothing to lose by killing the host are the most deadly and dangerous. Not just this, but see for example cholera too. That's a bacterium that not only has nothing to gain by peacefully staying inside you and not killing you, but is actually trying to get out of your body ASAP. Whether you live or die in the process, meh, it makes no difference for that one.

Additionally, for Y Pestis, the capability of clotting blood and forming colonies that plug blood vessels actually helped it spread too. The same mechanism makes it plug the stomach of fleas. The flea then will literally starve to death no matter how much blood it sucks, and driven by hunger, will go infect another host too.

So we have a bacterium for which the plasmid that kills its host:

1. isn't detrimental to the bacterium, since it can live just as well in a dead host or in soil, and

2. is actually beneficial to the bacterium, since it makes fleas spread it around.

That's one tough combo to evolve out of. There is no real survival benefit in losing those genes.

So while, yes, you would expect that bacteria can and will mutate in time, but it's not clear at all why this one would change in exactly that aspect.

Yet something seems to have changed. What and why? Those are the questions.

Re:Not necessarily (1)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255682)

I would probably vote for obsolescence. If the bacteria aren't being picked up en masse by silly humans who don't clean their food properly when they pull it from the fields, then the pressure for maintaining the human-killing equipment is pretty mediocre. It simply falls into disrepair and mutates into pseudogenes and non-functional gene products.

Re:Not necessarily (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37255690)

Yet something seems to have changed. What and why?

For one, pretty much everyone alive today (of European, Asian or North African descent, at least) descended from ancestors who survived the Black Death. It may well be us that changed, more than Y pestis.

odd coincidence (1)

damn_registrars (1103043) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255898)

I just spent a week running from earthquakes and hurricanes, then got home to feel like ... black death. Convenient that the sequence is now complete so I can confirm my suspicion of the most interesting vacation ever.

Just for fun (1)

Daetrin (576516) | more than 3 years ago | (#37255946)

Seanan McGuire has summed up the reasons why some people believe (or believed now?) that the Black Death may have been caused by something other than Yersinia Pestis in lyrical form. [seananmcguire.com] (Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be any recordings of her performing it on YouTube.)

This latest bit of research may have disproved the theory but it's still a fun song, and how often do you get to hear someone singing about epidemiology? :)
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