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Genetic twist: Medieval plague may have shaped our immunity

Genetic twist: Medieval plague may have shaped our immunity


Our medieval ancestors left a biological legacy. Genes that may have helped them survive the Black Death predispose us to certain diseases today.

It’s a prime example of how pathogens shape us over time, scientists say in new research published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

“Our genome today reflects our entire evolutionary history,” said study senior author Luis Barreiro.

The 14th-century Black Death was the deadliest event in recorded history, sweeping across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, wiping out between 30% and 50% of the population.

Barreiro and his colleagues at the University of Chicago, McMaster University in Ontario and the Pasteur Institute in Paris examined ancient DNA samples from the bones of more than 200 people who died in London and Denmark. The Black Death swept the area.

They identified four genes that, depending on the variant, increase protection or susceptibility to the bacteria that cause bubonic plague, most frequently transmitted by infected flea bites.

They found that helping people in the Middle Ages caused problems for later generations, increasing the frequency of harmful mutations in modern times. Divisions are associated with certain autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. In this type of disease, the immune system, which protects the body from disease and infection, attacks the body’s own healthy tissues.

“An overactive immune system may have been great in the past, but it may not be as helpful in today’s environment,” said Hendrik Poiner, professor of anthropology at McMaster University and another senior author.

Previous studies have also attempted to examine how the Black Death affected the human genome. But Barreiro said he believes it is the first to prove that the Black Death was critical to the evolution of the human immune system. According to him, one of the unique aspects of the study was its focus on a narrow time window around the event.

Author and medical historian Monica H. Greene, who has studied the Black Death extensively, called the study “very impressive” and brought together a wide range of experts.

It is “very sophisticated” and addresses important questions such as how the same version of the gene protects people from horrific infectious diseases and exposes modern humans and generations of descendants to other diseases. said Greene, who is involved in the research.

Will the COVID-19 pandemic have a significant impact on human evolution? Barreiro said he doesn’t think so because the mortality rate was so low and the majority of those who died already had children. .

But in the future, more deadly pandemics could continue to shape us at the most fundamental level, he said.

“It will not stop. It will surely continue.”


The Associated Press’ Health Sciences Division is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Division. AP is solely responsible for all content.




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