Researchers study black death DNA to determine effectiveness of quarantines

Italian authorities have granted a team of interdisciplinary researchers from the University of South Florida special access to study the remains of individuals who perished from the Black Death, a catastrophic plague that swept through the 14th century, claiming millions of lives. The researchers, led by Professor Robert Tykot from the USF Institute for the Advanced Study of Culture and the Environment, are focusing on extracting DNA from teeth found in 900 skeletons recovered from the Old Lazzaretto, an island off the Italian coast that served as the world’s first isolation hospital in 1423.

The primary objective of this study is to investigate the effectiveness of historical quarantine measures such as masks and isolation in combating the spread of pathogens. This unique opportunity allows the team to examine DNA sequences of pathogens found in a single location over an extended period, alongside DNA changes in the local population. By analyzing the co-evolution of pathogens and humans without interference from modern viruses or vaccinated individuals, the researchers hope to shed light on the impact of containment measures on genetic evolution during that time.

The project is spearheaded by USF visiting research fellow Andrea Vianello, a Venice native, who is working closely with preservation groups to establish the site’s first genetic database. Through this database, they aim to trace the evolution of both pathogens and humans across a span of 300 years, with the ultimate goal of determining if epidemics were halted by the implementation of quarantine practices.

The research effort began earlier in the year when the team examined the Justinianic plague, the first-known pandemic from the previous millennium, at a mass burial site in Jordan. The researchers organized an international conference to present their findings from Jordan and emphasize the significance of studying past pandemics in order to effectively address and manage current and future outbreaks.

Lead geneticist, Associate Professor Rays Jiang from the College of Public Health, is thrilled to expand their research and views the Old Lazzaretto, a World Heritage Site, as a treasure trove for genetic studies. The island’s historical significance lies in its potential to contain a diverse range of plague pathogens, as well as newly introduced diseases like syphilis and anthrax that transmitted from animals to humans.

To further their analysis, the team is actively seeking funding for proteomics, a research technique that examines how genetics are expressed and can aid in drug development by offering a comprehensive understanding of disease-related protein interactions.

Tykot examining teeth. Credit: Robert Tykot

According to Jiang, delving into the history of ancient pandemics serves a crucial purpose in preventing future outbreaks. By examining these past events, researchers can discern patterns of epidemics, trace the evolution of pathogens, gain insights into the cultural and social contexts that influenced disease spread, and learn from mistakes made in the past. Such knowledge can help us anticipate and prepare for potential challenges in handling future pandemics and can guide the development of effective public health policies.

The outcomes of this significant research project will not be kept hidden but will be shared with the public in an engaging and informative manner. The findings are slated to be showcased in a permanent exhibit at the forthcoming National Archaeological Museum of the Venetian Lagoon in Italy, which is expected to open its doors in approximately five years. By making this valuable information accessible to visitors and researchers alike, the museum aims to contribute to a better understanding of the interplay between pandemics and human history, fostering awareness and proactive measures to safeguard public health in the years to come.

Source: University of South Florida

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