Bacteria found in 20 million year old flea might be ancestor of the Black Death

A research team has recently revealed that an ancient flea that got trapped in amber 20 million years back contains bacteria that may be the ancestors of the Black Death or bubonic plague.

A member of the research team said that if further investigations confirm that the bacteria is related to Yersinia pestis, the plague bacteria, it would denote that the disease that destroyed more than a third of the population of Europe during the 14th century has been in existence in some form since the ancient times.

Scientists found samples of the bacteria on the proboscis of the flea, within its rectum and inside its sucking mouthparts, which suggest that the flea used to consume the bacteria and then excreted or regurgitated it.

Entomology researcher George Poinar, a representative of the Oregon State University, informed that besides the fossil bacteria’s physical characteristics which are similar to those of the plague bacteria, there’s also similarity between their position within the flea’s rectum and that of the modern plague bacteria. Poinar added that presence of the similar bacteria in a dry droplet on the flea’s proboscis matches the process of transmission of the plague bacteria by fleas of the current generation.

Poinar is the author of a paper about the bacteria and the flea that has been published recently in the Journal of Medical Entomology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

The flea studied by Poinar and his colleagues and the amber it got trapped in were discovered in mines. The region of this discovery is currently known as the Dominican Republic. Experts say that this part of the world used to be home to a tropical forest hundreds of thousands of years back.

The findings of the study, according to Poinar, suggest that the bacteria have been present for millions of years, possibly since a time when the first humans were yet to arrive, and have inhabited several parts of the globe.

The findings also put a big question mark on modern genomic researches that have been suggesting that the bacteria responsible for causing Black Death evolved during the past 20,000 years.

Poinar, however, has also noted that different strains of Yersinia pestis have inhabited our planet and out of them many have already been extinct.