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Palaeontology

Fossil flea carries ancient plague bacteria

September 30, 2015 | Comment icon 15 comments



Insects trapped in amber offer a snapshot of the past. Image Credit: PD - Sebakoamber
A 20 million-year-old flea trapped in amber is thought to be carrying the ancestor of Black Death.
Researchers have this week announced the discovery of something unexpected lurking inside the fossilized remains of a prehistoric flea trapped in amber - a bacteria believed to be the ancestor of Black Death - the deadly plague which wiped out more than 30 million people in the 14th century.

The specimen was found inside amber mines in what is now the Dominican Republic.

"Aside from physical characteristics of the fossil bacteria that are similar to plague bacteria, their location in the rectum of the flea is known to occur in modern plague bacteria," said Dr George Poinar Jr. who studied the prehistoric bacteria under extremely high magnification.
"In this fossil, the presence of similar bacteria in a dried droplet on the proboscis of the flea is consistent with the method of transmission of plague bacteria by modern fleas."

While there's no risk of this ancient bacteria coming back to life and infecting people in the present, its discovery does offer scientists with a chance to study how it evolved over millions of years.

"It would show that plague is actually an ancient disease that no doubt was infecting and possibly causing some extinction of animals long before any humans existed," said Dr Poinar.

Source: ABC.net.au | Comments (15)


Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #6 Posted by bee 7 years ago
. great news... .... smiley malfunction - it's that one with the eyes going from side to side While there's no risk of this ancient bacteria coming back to life and infecting people in the present, its discovery does offer scientists with a chance to study how it evolved over millions of years. famous last words.... totally agree Taun - what could possibly go wrong .
Comment icon #7 Posted by Misanthropic 7 years ago
I think they should explore this fully... I mean, what could possibly go wrong? Ahh, we'd be fine. According to dickipedia, 5-15 people contract plague each year in the US. For a disease that killed 75 to 200 million people, peaking in Europe in the years 1346 to 1353, i'd say we're doin' alright. Go science! Edit: Cut n' paste resulted in cut and misinformation. Whoopsie.
Comment icon #8 Posted by Taun 7 years ago
Ahh, we'd be fine. According to dickipedia, 5-15 people contract plague each year in the US. For a disease that killed 75 to 200 million people, peaking in Europe in the years 1346 to 1353, i'd say we're doin' alright. Go science! Edit: Cut n' paste resulted in cut and misinformation. Whoopsie. The problem is that the "black Death" or Bubonic Plague, that we have today is a mutated version of the one that swept through Europe in the 1400's... A disease that is millions of years removed from Human's means it is millions of years removed from our immune systems... It could easily be more deadly ... [More]
Comment icon #9 Posted by Ealdwita 7 years ago
Ealdwita snippet alert.... The amount of the population who died from the original bubonic strain was 50%. A variant of the disease was pneumonic plague, which attacked the lungs. Victims died quickly, in one or two days. The mortality rate in this case was 90%. Another variant was septicaemic plague, which infected the blood. Again victims died quickly and the mortality rate was 100%. So, looking at those figures....if you're gonna catch plague, the bubonic version would seem the preferable variety.
Comment icon #10 Posted by Athena1979 7 years ago
The Dominican republic is a ways away from Europe.
Comment icon #11 Posted by jarjarbinks 7 years ago
Just like Inferno from Dan Brown
Comment icon #12 Posted by Misanthropic 7 years ago
The problem is that the "black Death" or Bubonic Plague, that we have today is a mutated version of the one that swept through Europe in the 1400's... A disease that is millions of years removed from Human's means it is millions of years removed from our immune systems... It could easily be more deadly than the plague of the 1400's... You're absolutely correct. Thank you for teaching this old dog something new.
Comment icon #13 Posted by Frank Merton 7 years ago
Ealdwita snippet alert.... The amount of the population who died from the original bubonic strain was 50%. A variant of the disease was pneumonic plague, which attacked the lungs. Victims died quickly, in one or two days. The mortality rate in this case was 90%. Another variant was septicaemic plague, which infected the blood. Again victims died quickly and the mortality rate was 100%. So, looking at those figures....if you're gonna catch plague, the bubonic version would seem the preferable variety. Well maybe -- the more lethal an infectious disease is, all else being equal, the shorter the ... [More]
Comment icon #14 Posted by Taun 7 years ago
The Dominican republic is a ways away from Europe. Not with todays jet travel... A case could be made that it is actually much closer... Back in the 1400's (or so) it would take weeks for a person to travel from say, Istanbul (still called Constantinople then) to Paris... Today, to travel from The Dominican Republic to Paris, takes only a few hours... The plague(s) back then spread in patterns of years, creeping relatively slowly from one area to another... Today, any major outbreak would be global in a matter of hours...
Comment icon #15 Posted by cathya 7 years ago
Well, let's not open that amber and try to examine this flea. We've got enough problems to deal with in our world today.


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