KSJ Tracker November 1, 2010

NYTimes, more: Origin of black plague was in the marmots, voles, rats, and fleas of Asia

The NYTimes's Nicholas Wade appears to have been first out of the gate in reporting on Sunday a recent, and remarkable, reconstruction of the marches of plagues including the so-called Black Death that swept Europe in centuries past, arriving from the East. The news broke Sunday in Nature Genetics, but Wade knits that report together neatly with an earlier paper in PloS Pathogens about three weeks ago (got some coverage then) that shows a single closely-related clan of the bacterium Yersinia pestis was behind them all. As nations are so sensitive for being "blamed" for a disease when it gets named for them, one appreciates Wade's concluding graf:
The likely origin of the plague in China has nothing to do with its people or crowded cities, Dr. Achtman said. The bacterium has no interest in people, whom it slaughters by accident. Its natural hosts are various species of rodent such as marmots and voles, which are found throughout China.
Wade's story is time-ticked earlier than others, plus old friend Vic McElheny, former Knight Science Writing Fellowships director who follows genetics news like a flea pursuing a blood meal says Nick was first, a pretty good sign that's the case. Everybody says the disease has an origin in China. True, one supposes. But that's still a political construct. "Rodents in Asia" is purely geographical and biological in meaning. Not as easy to fit in a hed, not as dramatic, but truer. After all, last I heard person to person transmission does occur such as from coughing, but mostly the disease spreads via recycling through fleas from people to animal host and back to the next poor person. More stories: Grist for the Mill: Inst. for Genomics Sciences (via Newswise) Press Release; Pic source

- Charlie Petit


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