Agilent, the Great Plague… and Teeth

For the first time, scientists have been able to identify the bacteria that caused the Great Plague, by extracting DNA samples from the teeth of its victims.

The Great Plague of London in 1665 was the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague.  At its peak, the death rate reached 8,000 per week.  In total, the outbreak killed about 100,000 people, almost a quarter of London’s population at the time.  The epidemic finally subsided a year later, thanks in part to colder weather and a major fire that engulfed the city.

It was not until almost 200 years later that scientists identified the cause: a bacterium carried by rat fleas.  The specific agent was believed to be Yersinia pestis, but this could not be definitively confirmed.

Until now.

A few years ago, London workers were performing excavations for a new Crossrail station.  They uncovered 3,500 skeletons, including 45 individuals in a mass burial pit.  The placement of these bodies indicated a single, catastrophic event, which archaeologists identified as the 1665 plague.  The Bedlam graveyard (named for the nearby Bethlem “Bedlam” Royal Hospital) became the largest archaeology project in UK history.

German scientists were able to extract DNA samples from the teeth of five of the victims.  The enamel shells of the teeth protected and preserved the DNA, acting as a form of time capsule.  These samples have now been confirmed as Y. pestis.

Scientists first sequenced the genome of Y. pestis in 2011 by analyzing DNA samples from the teeth of plague victims.  Agilent technologies were used for array-based enrichment of the samples.  Agilent DNA capture arrays were designed for capture of the full Y. pestis chromosome.

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