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Scientists crack Black Death’s genetic code

Scientists crack Black Death’s genetic code

Scientists have mapped out the entire genetic map of the Black Death, a 14th century bubonic plague that killed 50 million Europeans in one of the most devastating epidemics in history.

The work, which involved extracting and purifying DNA from the remains of Black death victims buried in London’s “plague pits,” is the first time scientists have been able to draft a reconstructed genome of any ancient pathogen.

Their result — a full draft of the entire Black Death genome — should allow researchers to track changes in the disease’s evolution and virulence, and lead to better understanding of modern-day infectious diseases.

Building on previous research which showed that a specific variant of the Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis) bacterium was responsible for the plague that ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351, a team of German, Canadian and American scientists went on to “capture” and sequence the entire genome of the disease.

“The genomic data show that this bacterial strain, or variant, is the ancestor of all modern plagues we have today worldwide. Every outbreak across the globe today stems from a descendant of the medieval plague,” said Hendrik Poinar, of Canada’s McMaster University, who worked with the team.

“With a better understanding of the evolution of this deadly pathogen, we are entering a new era of research into infectious disease.”

Major technical advances in DNA recovery and sequencing have dramatically expanded the scope of genetic analysis of ancient specimens, opening up new ways of trying to understand emerging and re-emerging infections.

Experts say the direct descendants of the same bubonic plague still exist today, killing around 2,000 people a year.

A virulent strain of E. coli bacteria which caused a deadly outbreak of infections in Germany and France earlier this year was also found to contain DNA sequences from plague bacteria.

For this study Poinar’s team analysed skeletal remains from Black Death victims buried in London’s East Smithfield “plague pits,” which are located under what is now the Royal Mint.

By focusing on promising specimens from the dental pulp of five bodies, which had already been pre-screened for the presence of Y. pestis, they were able to extract, purify and enrich the disease’s DNA and at the same time reduce the amount of background non-plague DNA which might interfere.

Linking the 1349 to 1350 dates of the skeletal remains to the genetic data allowed the researchers to calculate the age of the ancestor of Y. pestis that caused the mediaeval plague.

Poinar, whose work was published in the journal Nature, said the team found that in 660 years of evolution, the genetic map of the ancient organism had only barely changed. “The next step is to determine why this was so deadly,” he said.

Johannes Krause Of Germany’s University of Tubingen, who also worked on the study, said the same approach could now be used to study the genomes of all sorts of historic pathogens.

“This will provide us with direct insights into the evolution of human pathogens and historical pandemics,” he said in a statement.

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Vick does little in return, Eagles rout Chiefs

Chiefs Eagles Football

Vick does little in return, Eagles rout Chiefs

PHILADELPHIA – Michael Vick was a super decoy.

Getting significant contributions from their youngsters and backups, the Philadelphia Eagles routed the Kansas City Chiefs 34-14 in Vick’s return to the NFL on Sunday.

The Eagles didn’t need much from Vick and they got nothing from Donovan McNabb or Brian Westbrook, who both sat out with injuries.

Kevin Kolb threw for 327 yards and two touchdowns, LeSean McCoy had 84 yards rushing and one TD, and DeSean Jackson and Brent Celek each had 100-plus yards receiving and one score for Philadelphia (2-1).

Kolb became the first quarterback to throw for 300 yards in his first two career starts. While he did most of the work, Vick got all the attention.

Playing his first regular-season game since Dec. 31, 2006 — 1,001 days ago — Vick ran once for 7 yards and threw two incomplete passes.

“It’s a different role, but it is what it is,” Vick said. “It was a small look. We have so much in store for the future.”

Vick will have more chances to display the skills that earned him the Superman nickname back when he was a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback with the Atlanta Falcons. For now, he’s content doing whatever it takes to help the Eagles win.

“It’s a different scenario. It’s hard. I haven’t been in this before,” he said. “I tell myself to stay loose and be ready for whenever they call my number and play within the framework of the offense.”

McNabb missed his second straight game with a broken rib. Westbrook sat out with a sore ankle. It was no problem against the Chiefs (0-3). Kolb, a third-year pro, and McCoy, a rookie second-round pick, filled in nicely.

“We recognized that Donovan and Westbrook were out,” Kolb said. “It was an opportunity for us to prove why they drafted us. We focused on dominating them.”

Vick, who served 18 months in prison on a federal dogfighting charge, didn’t have to wait long to get on the field. He entered to a semi-standing ovation for the second play from scrimmage, was split wide as receiver and came around for a fake reverse.

Overall, Vick got in for 11 plays. He lined up at receiver once, took the snap in shotgun formation nine times and was directly under center once. Kolb was on the sideline for the 10 plays Vick was in at QB.

Vick was expected to run Philadelphia’s version of the wildcat offense, but McCoy took most of those snaps.

With Vick on the field, the Eagles gained a net total of 30 yards. They got 390 without him. Or McNabb. Or Westbrook.

“We wanted to gradually get him in and get him back to game speed and knock some rust off,” Eagles coach Andy Reid said of Vick.

Matt Cassel threw for 90 yards and two TDs for Kansas City. The Chiefs remained winless under new coach Todd Haley.

“We have the talent to compete with anyone,” Cassel said. “We just have to eliminate the bad football and the penalties.”

Jackson finished with a career-high 149 yards receiving, including a 64-yard TD. Celek had 104 yards on eight catches.

The normally pass-happy Eagles were more balanced during their first two scoring drives. After Kolb connected with Jason Avant for a 10-yard gain on third-and-6, three straight running plays moved the ball to the Chiefs 5.

Then Vick, who had a 7-yard run on his second snap, fired a pass out of bounds under heavy pressure and took a hard hit. McCoy took the next snap in the wildcat and ran in for his first career TD to give the Eagles a 7-0 lead.

Kolb hit Jackson for 43 yards on the next possession to move the Eagles into Kansas City territory. Vick handed off to McCoy for an 11-yard run on his only play during the series. Kolb sneaked in from the 1 to put Philadelphia ahead 14-0.

The Chiefs took advantage of good field position after the Eagles failed to convert a fourth-and-1 at Kansas City’s 44. With Vick watching from the sideline, Kolb rolled out and his pass was knocked down by Mike Vrabel.

Cassel’s 13-yard TD pass to Mark Bradley cut it to 14-7.

But the Eagles answered on their first play after the kickoff. Jackson turned Kolb’s short pass over the middle into a 64-yard TD to make it 21-7. Jackson dove into the end zone and appeared to land awkwardly on his gimpy groin as he did a half split, but he stayed in.

Kolb zipped a 35-yard TD pass to Celek midway through the fourth quarter to put the game way out of reach.

Kolb threw for 391 yards, two TDs and three interceptions in a 48-22 loss to New Orleans last week. Kolb completed 24 of 34 passes and had a QB rating of 120.6 against the Chiefs.

Notes: The Eagles inducted former QB Randall Cunningham and OL Al Wistert into the team’s honor roll at halftime. … Philadelphia improved to 5-6 the week before a bye under Reid. … Jackson has four career 100-yard receiving games — two last September and two this September. He’s the first Eagles player to have TD receptions of 60-plus yards in consecutive games since Mike Quick in 1985. … Celek is the first Eagles tight end to have consecutive 100-yard games since Pete Retzlaff in 1965.


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