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EMBL Forum Lectures

Kirsten Bos

Dr. Kirsten Bos,
Institute for Archaeological Sciences, University of Tübingen

Friday, 1 March at 14:00 in the Large Operon, EMBL Heidelberg

Kirsten Bos, Institute for Archaeological Sciences, University of Tübingen

A draft genome of Yersinia pestis from victims of the Black Death


Genome wide data from ancient microbes may help to understand mechanisms of pathogen evolution and adaptation for emerging and re-emerging disease. Using high throughput DNA sequencing in combination with targeted DNA enrichment we have reconstructed the ancient genome of Yersinia pestis from skeletons securely dated to the Black Death pandemic from the East Smithfield cemetery in London, England, 1348 – 1350. Phylogenetic analysis indicate that the ancient organism is ancestral to most extant Y. pestis strains and falls very close to the ancestral node of human infectious Y. pestis that had their genome sequenced. Temporal estimates suggest that the Black Death of 1346 – 1351 was the main historical event responsible for the introduction and worldwide dissemination of currently circulating Y. pestis strains pathogenic to humans, and further indicates that contemporary Y. pestis epidemics have their origins in the medieval era. Comparisons against modern genomes reveal no unique derived positions in the medieval organism, suggesting that the perceived increased virulence of the disease during the Black Death may not have been due to bacterial physiology. These findings support the notion that factors other than microbial genetics, such as environment, vector dynamics, and host susceptibility should be at the forefront of discussions regarding emerging Y. pestis infections.


As an undergraduate, Kirsten Bos studied Bio-Medical Science at the University of Guelph. She began her studies in Anthropology in doing a Master’s degree with Shelley Saunders at McMaster University, with a focus on paleopathology, demography, and population level health in antiquity. In 2011 she received her PhD from McMaster University where she studied ancient DNA under Hendrik Poinar. Her main focus was on using techniques in ancient DNA research to access highly degraded pathogen DNA from skeletal material. She is currently a SSHRC-funded postdoctoral fellow cross appointed at the University of Tuebingen, where she works in the Palaogenetics group under Johannes Krause, and at the École Pratique des Hautes Étude where she studies under paleopathologist Olivier Dutour.