The Black Death and the Plague of Justinian: Hunting, trapping and taming pandemics of the past

Event Date: 
Monday, March 3, 2014 - 7:30pm to 9:30pm
Event Location: 
ATAC 1003 (video conferenced to Orillia in OA 1033)

Faculty of Science and Environmental Studies Speaker Series:  Presentation by Dr. Hendrik Poinar, Canada Research Chair in Paleogenetics, McMaster University

Event Information Dr. Hendrik Poinar

Date:  March 3, 2014

Location: ATAC 1003 (video conferenced to Orillia in OA 1033)

Time: 7:30 pm


About the Talk

SkeletonsOver the course of history we humans have succumb to many epidemics, but two of them have claimed an estimated 100-150 million lives. These were the Plague of Justinian from 540 - 543 AD and the "Black Death" From 1347 through 1351. This was an estimated 30 – 50% of the European population living at the time.  In the last several decades, academic and biomedical interest in the causative agent of these pandemics has fuelled controversial claims and that the prevailing view, that the disease was caused by an outbreak of Yersinia pestis (bubonic plague), was not likely given the historical descriptions of the disease and their differences to modern accounts of bubonic or pneumonic plague infections.  

In recent years, ancient DNA data garnered from victims of the Roman and medieval outbreak have strongly implicated Y. pestis as the responsible pathogen.  DNA survives in the fossil record longer than theory predicts, the determinants of which are dependent upon a complex array of environmental factors that are difficult to model. Post mortem, DNA is cleaved to short fragment sizes that range between 30-60bp, the thermodynamics of which enhance preservation. We have used a novel enrichment technique to capture and sequence the genome of the bacteria 'responsible' for these pandemics. I will discuss the implications of this research in the context of understanding the evolution of virulence and the co-evolution of their 'accidental' hosts, namely humans. 

About the Speaker

Hendrik Poinar obtained his BS and MS at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, he went on to do a PhD in evolutionary genetics under Dr. Svante Paabo then at the Ludwig Maximillians Universitat in Munich.

He then completed a postdoc at Oregon State University under Dr. Steve Giovanonni in microbial genetics after which he took a postdoctoral fellowship at the newly formed Max Planck Institute for evolutionary genetics in Leipzig Germany.

Hendrik Poinar is particularly interested in the preservation and extraction of DNA from forensic, archeological and paleontological remains. How can DNA persist in environments past its theoretical “time limit”? Once extracted our group likes to use the gene sequences to address questions of evolution, phylogeny, selection and biogeography.