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Could this fossilized flea unleash deadly plague?

This flea preserved about 20 million years ago in amber may carry evidence of an ancestral strain of the bubonic plague. Photo by George Poinar, Jr., courtesy of Oregon State University [CC BY-SA 2.0]

The flea in this picture could contain the ancestor to one of the most horrifying diseases known to the human race, the Black Death. Also called the bubonic plague, this disease killed an estimated 50 million people in the 14th century, or 60 per cent of Europe’s entire population.

Examination of this flea found droplets of the deadly bacteria on its proboscis (sucking mouthpart) and in its backside. This thing’s got it bad!

George Poinar, Jr., an entomology researcher in the College of Science at Oregon State University, told Discover News reporters “Aside from physical characteristics of the fossil bacteria that are similar to plague bacteria, their location in the rectum of the flea is known to occur in modern plague bacteria, and in this fossil, the presence of similar bacteria in a dried droplet on the proboscis of the flea is consistent with the method of transmission of plague bacteria by modern fleas.”

In other words, it looks like we’ve got a winner!

Just as the mosquito that started all the trouble in Jurrasic Park, this chunk of amber was pulled from a mine in the Dominican Republic. Is it possible that this bacteria could somehow be revived? It’s not likely. Generally things that have been trapped in rock for 20 million years are going to be pretty dead. However, we have discovered bacteria that can survive in space, so what do we know?

The arrow points at bacteria on the proboscis of this flea preserved in amber, which researchers believe may be an ancestral strain of the bacteria that causes bubonic plague. Photo by George Poinar, Jr., courtesy of Oregon State University [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Another question is could an early form of this plague have been partially responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago? Research suggests that the big event was a large asteroid (and that more may be coming). But imagine the double-whammy of terrible disease and an astro-event!Poinar added “If this is an ancient strain of Yersinia, it would be extraordinary. It would show that plague is actually an ancient disease that no doubt was infecting and possibly causing some extinction of animals long before any humans existed. Plague may have played a larger role in the past than we imagined.”Hopefully all of this will remain scientific curiosity and we won’t have some strange event that brings on the zombie apocalypse. Though, it wouldn’t hurt to have a few cans of food and some extra water handy.

Read the original Discovery News article.

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