Secrets in the Bones: The Hunt for the Black Death Killer


It was called the Black Death, a disease that started with the spitting of blood and ended in just days with blackened extremities, delirium and death. In the 14th century it swept across Europe wiping out half the population, one of the most lethal killers in human history.

But for more than 660 years the cause of the Black Death has eluded scientists. Now, Hendrik Poinar, an evolutionary biologist based at Hamilton’s McMaster University, leads an international team on an epic quest from a Black Death gravesite in Italy, to a top secret government laboratory in the United States, to a repository holding more than 20,000 sets of human remains in London. His goal: Capture the Black Death killer and unlock the secrets of this deadly disease, secrets that could help us fight infectious diseases today and, potentially, save lives.

“No one imagines that there’s actually something still hidden within a bone that’s been buried for a few thousand years or 100,000 years,” says Poinar, “let alone the possibility of resurrecting it or bringing it back to life.  I mean that’s completely bizarre.  It’s like a time machine.”

The desire to go back in time has driven Hendrik Poinar since he first watched his father study the survival of DNA in insects captured in amber. George Poinar was one of the men who inspired Michael Crichton to write Jurassic Park. Hendrik is also after ancient DNA, specifically the DNA of the pathogen that caused the Black Death. There is a prime suspect – a bacteria called Yersinia pestis.

Unmasking this killer is a critical task because the Black Death still claims victims to this day.  Just ask Paul Gaylord. What he thought was a nasty case of flu turned out to be a life-threatening nightmare. Paul used to be a welder – not any more. A year ago he lost all his fingers and toes to the modern version of the Black Death – bubonic plague.

Paul’s story is at the heart of Poinar’s quest.  The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is one of the bodies responsible for protecting us from infectious diseases. If Poinar is successful, his discoveries could provide them with an early warning system to fight this nasty pathogen.

If correct, another theory could help fight other diseases. Poinar believes the Black Death may have been caused by more than one pathogen. SECRETS IN THE BONES: THE HUNT FOR THE BLACK DEATH KILLER travels to the top secret Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California to find out if he’s right.

Poinar also digs deep into another mystery. The Black Death killed 50% of Europe’s population, but 50% survived. The question is why? Poinar wants to find out because he believes that whatever genetic variation protected people then could also protect us now from a whole host of diseases.

SECRETS IN THE BONES: THE HUNT FOR THE BLACK DEATH KILLER follows Poinar’s quest to do something no other scientist in history has ever done – crack the genetic code of an ancient killer and change the way we fight infectious diseases today.