More than 700 years ago, a pandemic called the Black Death tore across Europe, taking an estimated 75 million to 200 million lives and reducing the continent’s population by around 30% to 60%. The Black Death was the first wave of a pandemic that lasted almost 500 years and is said to be the largest-ever catastrophe involving infectious diseases.
Centuries later, the genetic traits that enabled people to fight off the bubonic plague are associated with an increased risk of certain autoimmune disorders.
Researchers studying DNA from survivors and victims of the bubonic plague found that people who had a gene called ERAP2 were much more likely to beat the disease at higher rates. These findings show that on top of eradicating up to 50% of Europe’s population in the 14th century, the Black Death played a significant role in the evolution of immunity genes such as ERAP2. Since this gene offered great immunity against the bubonic plague, people with ERAP2 were more likely to survive and pass it on to the following generations.
However, researchers have now found that this gene now makes individuals more susceptible to autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s disease.
Study senior coauthor and professor of generic medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center Luis Barriero says these findings are the first concrete evidence showing that the Black Death was a major factor in the evolution of the human immune system. Barriero and his colleagues studied 500 DNA samples extracted from individuals who had either survived the Black Death or succumbed to the infectious disease. They then looked for signs that the individuals had formed genetic adaptations in response to the plague and found that those who had two copies of the “good” ERAP2 gene could produce functional proteins that allowed their immune system to spot an infection and take action.
This adaptation was made possible by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. Overall, the presence of these good genes increased the chances of surviving the Black Death by around 40%.
This adaptation has also increased the risk of autoimmune conditions that occur when the immune system begins attacking body tissues. There are more than 80 types of autoimmune disorders, and scientists still haven’t been able to pinpoint their exact causes.
One theory posits that some drugs, viruses or bacteria may cause changes that confuse the immune system and cause it to begin attacking the individual’s tissues.
The investigators reported their findings in the “Nature” journal.
A lot more entities, including Aditxt Inc. (NASDAQ: ADTX), are studying the immune system and developing techniques through which some of the overreactions of this beneficial system can be toned down in order to avert or reverse the progression of autoimmune ailments.
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