Plague Journal Club: Ancient Y. pestis genomes

The study of ancient DNA sequences from Yersinia pestis has yielded important insights into the ecology and evolution of this important human pathogen. However, the analysis and interpretation of ancient DNA data remains challenging compared with modern data. Here, we will discuss two recent papers with new or improved genomes from First and Second Pandemic victims.

"A high-coverage Yersinia pestis Genome from a 6th-century Justinianic Plague Victim." (2016) 

Michal Feldman, et. al. 

DOI: 10.1093/molbev/msw170


The Justinianic Plague, which started in the sixth century and lasted to the mid eighth century, is thought to be the first of three historically documented plague pandemics causing massive casualties. Historical accounts and molecular data suggest the bacterium Yersinia pestis as its etiological agent. Here we present a new high-coverage (17.9-fold) Y. pestis genome obtained from a sixth-century skeleton recovered from a southern German burial site close to Munich. The reconstructed genome enabled the detection of 30 unique substitutions as well as structural differences that have not been previously described. We report indels affecting a lacl family transcription regulator gene as well as nonsynonymous substitutions in the nrdEfadJ, and pcp genes, that have been suggested as plague virulence determinants or have been shown to be upregulated in different models of plague infection. In addition, we identify 19 false positive substitutions in a previously published lower-coverage Y. pestis genome from another archaeological site of the same time period and geographical region that is otherwise genetically identical to the high-coverage genome sequence reported here, suggesting low-genetic diversity of the plague during the sixth century in rural southern Germany.


"Improved assemblies and comparison of two ancient Yersinia pestis genomes." (2016) [preprint]

Nina Luhmann, et. al.



Yersinia pestis is the causative agent of the bubonic plague, a disease responsible for several dramatic historical pandemics. Progress in ancient DNA (aDNA) sequencing rendered possible the sequencing of whole genomes of important human pathogens, including the ancient Yersinia pestis strains responsible for important outbreaks of the bubonic plague in London in the 14th century and in Marseille in the 18th century among others. However, aDNA sequencing data are still characterized by short reads and non-uniform coverage, so assembling ancient pathogen genomes remains challenging and prevents in many cases a detailed study of genome rearrangements. It has recently been shown that comparative scaffolding approaches can improve the assembly of ancient Yersinia pestis genomes at a chromosome level. In the present work, we address the last step of genome assembly, the gap- filling stage. We describe an optimization-based method AGapEs (Ancestral Gap Estimation) to fill in inter-contig gaps using a combination of a template obtained from related extant genomes and aDNA reads. We show how this approach can be used to refine comparative scaffolding by selecting contig adjacencies supported by a mix of unassembled aDNA reads and evolutionary parsimony signal. We apply our method to two ancient Yersinia pestis genomes from the London and Marseilles outbreaks of the bubonic plague. We obtain highly improved genome assemblies for both the London strain and Marseille strain genomes, comprised of respectively five and six scaffolds, with 95% of the assemblies supported by ancient reads. We analyze the genome evolution between both ancient genomes in terms of genome rearrangements, and observe a high level of synteny conservation between these two strains.

Published Sep. 16, 2016 10:24 AM - Last modified Sep. 16, 2016 10:24 AM