Integrative approach using Yersinia pestis genomes to revisit the historical landscape of plague during the Medieval Period

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 Dec 11;115(50):E11790-E11797. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1812865115. Epub 2018 Nov 26.


Over the last few years, genomic studies on Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of all known plague epidemics, have considerably increased in numbers, spanning a period of about 5,000 y. Nonetheless, questions concerning historical reservoirs and routes of transmission remain open. Here, we present and describe five genomes from the second half of the 14th century and reconstruct the evolutionary history of Y. pestis by reanalyzing previously published genomes and by building a comprehensive phylogeny focused on strains attributed to the Second Plague Pandemic (14th to 18th century). Corroborated by historical and ecological evidence, the presented phylogeny, which includes our Y. pestis genomes, could support the hypothesis of an entry of plague into Western European ports through distinct waves of introduction during the Medieval Period, possibly by means of fur trade routes, as well as the recirculation of plague within the human population via trade routes and human movement.

Keywords: Medieval; Second Pandemic; Yersinia pestis; ancient DNA; plague.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • DNA, Bacterial / genetics
  • DNA, Bacterial / isolation & purification
  • Europe / epidemiology
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Fossils / microbiology
  • Genome, Bacterial
  • History, Medieval
  • Humans
  • Pandemics / history*
  • Phylogeny
  • Plague / epidemiology
  • Plague / history*
  • Plague / microbiology
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide
  • Time Factors
  • Yersinia pestis / classification
  • Yersinia pestis / genetics*


  • DNA, Bacterial