East Smithfield Burial Pit Reveals Plague Genome

Rachel Holdsworth
By Rachel Holdsworth Last edited 114 months ago
East Smithfield Burial Pit Reveals Plague Genome

Researchers extracted DNA from four skeletons originally buried in East Smithfield cemetery, which was opened to cope with the unprecedented deaths in the first great wave of the Black Death in 1348-49, to find the source of the plague.

The Museum of London excavated the site between 1986-88 and found bodies stacked up to five deep. Researchers wanted to reconstruct the deadly disease's genetic code, so drilled teeth from the remains of a man, two women and a child to get at what's described as "dark black powdery material... that's very likely to be dried up blood and other biological tissues". This is the first time a pathogen has been sequenced from material over 100 years old.

They found that the strain which wiped out half the population of Europe is very similar to the strain around today - which keeps popping up in the Americas. The results are published in Nature.

Last Updated 13 October 2011