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Oh Good, Someone Found Ancient Plague Genomes

Be right back, have to fashion myself a beak-mask.

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Scientists have discovered the oldest plague pathogen genomes yet, which is really cool  for archeology and history, but apparently terrible for the future of the human race.

Because there is just too much good news in the world today, a recent Gizmodo article wants us to know that the fascinating scientific discovery of 1,500 year old plague genomes actually just means we’re all at death’s door. The genomes were discovered in the teeth of two plague victims buried in Bavaria, and date back to between 541-543 CE.

Most people associate the word “plague” with the Bubonic Plague or Black Death (if not a Monty Python sketch), but the Bubonic Plague claimed most of its victims a mere 600 years ago. Due to the age of the skeletons, scientists knew before examining the actual DNA that they were instead victims of the Justinian plague, which originated in Asia and occurred about 800 years before the Bubonic outbreak.

What scientists couldn’t have predicted, and what they want us to be super, super scared about, is that the Bubonic and Justinian plague were in fact just different varieties of the same pathogen.

Similarity in the plague strains suggests that the Y.pestis pathogen may evolve to create slightly different versions of the same plague, and could have had incarnations even before the Justinian outbreak — which, just in case you haven’t had a panic attack yet, means there could be another one any day now, and you should obviously live in constant fear.

Tom Gilbert at the Natural History Museum of Denmark wants to make sure we are all super bummed out right now, saying:

What this shows is that the plague jumped into humans on several different occasions and has gone on a rampage. That shows the jump is not that difficult to make and wasn’t a wild fluke. Humans are infringing on rodents’ territory, so it’s only a matter of time before we get more exposure to them.

In addition, the Internet has been quick to point out that although we may appear better prepared for a new outbreak of an evolved Y.pestis pathogen than those poor medieval bastards, we could be debilitated by our overuse of antibiotics. I don’t know about antibiotics but I know there’s this cool thing called a chill pill and the internet needs to take one right now.

Gizmodo writer Ashley Feinberg could use one, too. Feinberg is pretty sure we aren’t sufficiently scared by the imminent destruction of our species, so she checked with scientists to see what would happen if Y.pestis evolved to be airborne.  Hendrik Poinar of the McMaster University Ancient DNA Center  confirmed that, yes, that would indeed be super scary, as an airborne version of the pathogen could kill in twenty four hours.

Feinberg suggests that our best hope for the future of the human race is to watch out for steep drops in rodent populations because when they start going, “there’s every chance that we could be next.” Womp, womp.

(via Gizmodo and Krista Kennedy)

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