Insects, Disease, and History in the News
DNA confirms cause of 1665 London's Great Plague
PLAGUE: GENETIC ANALYSIS, JUSTINIAN PLAGUE BACILLUS
Date: Tue 28 Jan 2014
Source: The Mirror [edited]
A strain of bubonic plague as deadly as that which caused the Black Death could make a reappearance on Earth, scientists have said in a stark warning. Research into one of the most devastating pandemics in human history - the Plague of Justinian, where half the world's population died - found evidence that such an episode could happen again. Scientists who isolated genetic traces of the plague from the teeth of 2 1500-year-old victims found it was caused by a distinctly different bacterial strain from that responsible for the later Black Death.
Both scourges were triggered by the bubonic plague bacterium, _Yersinia pestis_, which can be spread from rats [or other infected rodents - Mod. LL] to humans by fleas. The new research shows that the 2 infectious organisms were distinct strains. While the Justinian strain vanished from the Earth, the Black Death strain gave rise to another pandemic in the late 1800s. The discovery suggests that a new deadly strain of plague could strike again without warning.
Dr Dave Wagner, a member of the international team of scientists from Northern Arizona University in the USA, said: "We know the bacterium _Y. pestis_ has jumped from rodents into humans throughout history and rodent reservoirs of plague still exist today in many parts of the world.
"If the Justinian plague could erupt in the human population, cause a massive pandemic,
and then die out, it suggests it could happen again.
Fortunately we now have antibiotics that could be used to effectively treat plague, which lessens the chances of another large-scale human pandemic." The Plague of Justinian struck in the 6th century and is estimated to have killed between 30 million and 50 million people as it spread across Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and Europe - virtually half the world's population at the time. Some 800 years later, the Black Death wiped out 50 million Europeans between 1347 and 1351.
The scientists managed to recover tiny DNA fragments of the bacterium from the teeth of two Justinian plague victims buried in Bavaria, Germany. From these short remnants they reconstructed the genome of the Justinian strain of _Y. pestis_ and compared it with a database of more than 100 contemporary strains.
The findings, published online in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases, revealed that the strain responsible for the Justinian plague was an evolutionary "dead end". It came, did its damage, and disappeared from the Earth, having no connection with the later Black Death.
The 19th century pandemic which spread across the globe from Hong Kong was a likely descendant of the more successful Black Death strain, said the scientists.
Experts now think the Justinian strain of _Y. pestis_ originated in Asia, not in Africa as originally thought. But there was no molecular evidence of a link with earlier smaller epidemics such as the Plague of Athens in 430 BC and the Antonine Plague between the years 165 and 180.
These outbreaks could also represent separate, independent emergences of Y. pestis strains capable of infecting humans, it is believed.
"This study raises intriguing questions about why a pathogen that was both so successful and so deadly died out," said Australian co-author Dr Edward Holmes, from the University of Sydney. "One testable possibility is that human populations evolved to become less susceptible."
[Byline: Jessica Best]
UF Expert to Showcase Insects at Olustee Re-Enactment
From the University of Florida
News Desk www.news.ufl.edu
(352) 392-0186 UF expert to showcase insects at Olustee re-enactment
Feb. 15, 2006 / Photo available at http://news.ifas.ufl.edu
By: Julie Walters Contact: Tom Nordlie (352) 392-0400, [email protected]
Source: Tom Fasulo (352) 392-1901, [email protected] LAKE CITY, Fla. --- When Civil War buffs commemorate the struggle between North and South at the Battle of Olustee re-enactment this weekend, a University of Florida expert will be on hand to demonstrate how Rebs and Yanks faced a common foe - insects.
Participants and spectators gathering Feb. 17-19 at the Olustee Battlefield Historic Site near Lake City can get an up-close look at weevils and lice and learn how pests affected soldiers, courtesy of Thomas Fasulo, an extension entomologist with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Fasulo, who develops instructional materials on entomology for UF, said pests played a significant - and deadly - role in the Civil War. Diseases, often spread by insects, claimed twice as many lives as combat injuries.
"People have a fairly sanitized idea of what a soldier's life was like during the
Civil War," he said. "Every soldier at the Battle of Olustee
- 5,500 men on each side - was infested with body lice."
Even dedicated re-enactors might balk at hosting the blood-sucking insects for the sake of historical accuracy, so Fasulo - a re-enactor with 12 years' experience - will present a one-man show of sorts. Portraying a Union officer, he will wander the park displaying vials of lice and their eggs, known as nits, and tell visitors about the pests.
Soldiers inadvertently spread lice by sharing equipment - particularly blankets - to lighten their loads for long marches, he said. The pests did not pose a serious health threat during the Civil War, but they made life uncomfortable - one man could host more than 100 lice, each raising small, itchy bites on the soldier's skin.
Men would temporarily rid themselves of lice by boiling their uniforms and bathing, or by kicking up anthills and dropping their clothes on top, letting the swarming ants pick out lice and nits, Fasulo said. But in the close quarters of camp, no soldier was ever louse-free for long. The pests were so common that soldiers bet on louse races for entertainment.
"Soldiers would each pick a louse off their uniform and drop it onto an army-issue tin plate," he said. "The soldier whose louse reached the edge first would win tobacco, or food or a night off from guard duty."
Union Army rations provided breeding grounds for another prevalent pest, a tiny brown beetle called the granary weevil, Fasulo said. At the Olustee re-enactment, he will spend part of his time in a simulated Union encampment, displaying weevils in hardtack, a cracker made from flour and water that was a staple of the Union soldier's diet.
"In the war, men given moldy hardtack could usually redeem it the next time rations were doled out but they weren't allowed to trade in the weevil-infested variety," he said.
Weevils could be removed from hardtack by dropping it in a cup of boiling water or coffee and skimming the insects off the surface, Fasulo said. Re-enactment spectators may not be familiar with lice and weevils, but they'll probably recognize the insects that posed the greatest threat to soldiers - flies and mosquitoes.
Common house flies spread dysentery and diarrhea, which claimed as many as 100,000 lives during the four-year conflict, he said. Malaria, spread by mosquitoes, infected 1 million soldiers during the first two years of the war and claimed thousands of lives. "It's hard to imagine now, but doctors did not make the connection between mosquitoes and malaria until more than 30 years after the Battle of Olustee," Fasulo said.
The vast numbers of men and animals involved in the war made insect problems inevitable, said Gary Miller, a research entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Systematic Entomology Laboratory in Beltsville, Md.
"Army camps were giant breeding and feeding grounds for insects," Miller said. "For example, the Union Army of the Potomac began the Overland Campaign in spring of 1864 with more than 100,000 men, 8,000 to 10,000 head of cattle and over 56,000 horses and mules. There is little doubt the soldiers were surrounded by both animal and human refuse."
The Battle of Olustee, fought Feb. 20, 1864, was the largest Civil War battle in Florida, Fasulo said. The Union Army, which entered the state through the port of Jacksonville, was sent to establish a government loyal to the Union and cut off supplies of beef and salt to the Confederate Army. The Union Army was forced to retreat after four hours of fighting, ending with almost 2,000 of 5,500 Union soldiers killed, wounded or captured. More information about this year's re-enactment can be found at Fasulo's Battle of Olustee Web site, http://battleofolustee.org/
Study: Napoleon's Army Destroyed by Lice
(Jan. 3, 2006) By Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News (http://dsc.discovery.com/news/briefs/20060102/napoleonarmy_his.html)
Jan. 3, 2006- Lice played a key role in Napoleon Bonaparte's disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, according to genetic research into the skeletal remains of the ill-fated army.
Napoleon marched into Russia in the summer of 1812, leading the largest army Europe had ever seen, some half million soldiers, toward Moscow.
The invasion was the French emperor's answer to tzar Alexander I's refusal of the Continental System, a system of economic preference and protection within Europe aimed to exclude British trade and reinforce the French economy at the expense of the other states.
Six months later, the Grande Armée was reduced to 25,000 men who retreated to Vilnius, Lithuania, in the freezing cold. Only 3,000 survived the war, weather and disease to continue the retreat. The dead were buried in mass graves. One such grave, containing between 2,000 and 3,000 corpses, was discovered in 2001 in Vilnius during some construction work.
Analysis of the remains produced hard genetic evidence that louse-borne pathogens were a major factor in the French retreat from Russia, Didier Raoult, of the Université de la Méditerranée in Marseille, and colleagues reported in the January issue of The Journal of Infectious Diseases.
"We believe that louse-borne diseases caused much of the death of Napoleon's army," Raoult told Discovery News.
Human body lice transmit Borrelia recurrentis, Bartonella quintana and Rickettsia prowazekii, the agents of louse-borne relapsing fever, trench fever and epidemic typhus, respectively.
Raoult and colleagues analyzed two kilograms of earth from the mass grave containing bone fragments and remnants of clothing and identified body segments of five lice. Three of them carried DNA from relapsing fever. The scientists then analyzed dental pulp from 72 teeth, taken from the remains of 35 soldiers. The sequencing revealed DNA of Bartonella quintana in seven soldiers.
"We believe that these findings provide firm evidence that the soldiers had trench fever," wrote the researchers. The team also detected the DNA of Rickettsia prowazekii in three other soldiers, indicating that Napoleon's army also suffered from epidemic typhus.
Overall, nearly one-third of Napoleon's soldiers buried in Vilnius were affected by louse-borne infectious diseases, the researchers concluded.
"This is very important and exciting research because it provides compelling physical evidence for the impact of louse-borne diseases on Grand Army troops during Napoleon's invasion of, and retreat from, Russia," Robert Peterson, an expert of insect ecology and agricultural and biological risk assessment at Montana State University, told Discovery News.