The Black Death was certainly a colourful killer. Ravaging Europe in the 14th century, the bubonic plague wiped out between a third and a half of the continent's population. Carried in the gut of fleas (in purple), the bacteria (shown in yellow) wreaked such wholesale chaos that it changed the very fabric of European culture. Modern antibiotics have mostly consigned the plague to the history books, but 3000 cases are still reported annually. It's important therefore to understand how the disease strikes with such rapidity that, as a Middle Ages witness noted that victims often "ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise". In fact, it appears that bubonic plague shares genes with several other pathogens that may underlie a common attack mechanism. Unlocking how these genes cause infection could help fight numerous diseases that continue to leave a black mark on our societies.
Written by Jan Piotrowski
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