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DNA research unlocks the secrets of the Black Death

12:36pm EDT - 02:43

Norwegian scientists seek to uncover secrets of the Black Death - and potentially help prevent a future global pandemic. Jim Drury reports.

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TV AND WEB RESTRICTIONS~**PART MUST ONSCREEN COURTESY 'YNGVE VOGT, UIO'*~ The picturesque Norwegian port of Bergen. But its bucolic setting belies a dark history. It's where the Black Death first struck Norway, wiping out a third of its people. SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR OF BIOLOGY AT UNIVERSITY OF OSLO, NILS STENSETH, SAYING: "To Norway it came in the summer, early summer of 1349. It came to this very city and it came on a boat from England." University of Oslo professor Nils Stenseth wants to improve our understanding of the pandemic. Stenseth and researcher Boris Schmid think there's a direct relationship between climate change, the rise and fall of rodent populations, and major plague outbreaks. Schmid says rises in temperature or rainfall preceded most outbreaks by about 15 years. He says future climate change in Asia - where plague eruptions traditionally start - could trigger a fourth global pandemic. SOUNDBITE (English) RESEARCHER IN THEORETICAL BIOLOGY AT UNIVERSITY OF OSLO, BORIS SCHMID, SAYING: "What kind of impact will it have on synchronous sort of organised climate patterns in Asia? If it makes climate in Asia less constant and going in ups and downs you have more potential for plague outbreaks." Molecular anthropologist Barbara Bramanti extracts DNA samples from the teeth of Norwegian plague victims' remains. Bramanti wants to know how the plague bacterium survives between outbreaks. There are around 2,000 global cases of plague annually, mostly in Africa. SOUNDBITE (English) SENIOR RESEARCHER IN MOLECULAR ANTHROPOLOGY AT UNIVERSITY OF OSLO, BARBARA BRAMANTI, SAYING: "Now we have very large number of samples coming from let's say Eurasia - from Europe from the first and second pandemic and also from some localities of Asia." Chinese plague researchers recently injected the bacterium into gerbils, comparing the genomes of the surviving rodents with those which died. SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR OF BIOLOGY AT UNIVERSITY OF OSLO, NILS STENSETH, SAYING: "My motivation for doing this is really to find out how things work, simply curiosity but this curiosity is also very important in understanding when there might be a plague outbreak among people...We can say that because if there has been a large population for a couple of years of gerbils over a large area and it suddenly crashes, that's the time when it's going to spill over, so this is really of direct interest to public health people." It's unclear how the plague spreads, although it's traditionally been blamed on rats or fleas. The Oslo team hope to help prevent other cities facing the same apocalyptic fate of Bergen.

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DNA research unlocks the secrets of the Black Death

12:36pm EDT - 02:43