According to researchers, the infamous Black Death is still out there and it hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages. Using the skeletal remains of people who died from the Plague, scientists were able to reconstruct the DNA of the bacteria that killed them. Aside from a few minor mutations, the genetic structure of the Medieval Plague is nearly identical to that of its modern descendant.
However, since the 14th Century human beings have changed. Our immune systems have adapted to fight this and others diseases, and we’re much more conscious of hygiene than our ancestors in 14th Century Europe. We’ve developed better medicine and better methods of containing dangerous outbreaks when they happen, and we don’t tolerate rats running around our homes spreading infections like we once did.
The Bubonic Plague may be stalking the streets of Europe right now, searching for some unsuspecting merchant or cobbler to infect, but this time we’re ready with wonderful, new technologies like soap. The Black Death doesn’t stand a chance.
The return of the Black Death could be a good science fiction story, but the bacteria would have to evolve—something it apparently hasn’t done for a while. We’re only safe until it develops a resistance to antibiotics or our economy gets so bad our standard of living drops back to Midieval levels (both are plausible).
For a disease to really have the impact of the original Plague, it would probably have to be completely new, something our immune systems wouldn’t know how to deal with, something our medicine has never had to fight before and our society doesn’t know how to contain. Maybe something from space, like the Andromeda Strain. The next round of Swine Flu could be pretty bad too.
For more on the reconstruction of Plague DNA, click here. Experts say the ability to reconstruct the DNA of historical diseases, including the Black Death, could help us understand how modern infections begin and spread.