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British Research Institutes Sequence Black Death Bacterium

NEW YORK, Oct. 4 - Researchers at the Sanger Center and other leading British institutions said Thursday that they have completed the sequencing of  Yersinia pestis , the bacterium that causes the deadly bubonic plague, also known as "black death."

The Wellcome Trust funded the three-year, 330,000 pound ($487,476) research effort.

The researchers said that the completed sequences would help scientists to develop more drugs and a possible vaccine for the disease, which still affects about 3,000 people a year, according to the World Health Organization. In the 14th century, the bubonic planned wiped out one-third of Europe.

"Many people do not realise that plague is still with us, although it is not as common as it was. There are even some drug-resistant strains in Africa," Julian Parkhill, who led the research at the Sanger Center, said in a statement. "It's down but not out, which is why this research is so important."

The sample of the bacteria came  from a veternarian from Colorado, who died in 1992 after a cat carrying the plague sneezed on him while he was trying to rescue it from underneath a house. Fleas, which carry the disease, live on squirrels, cats, and other wildlife.

The scientists said that they now believe that  Yersinia pestis may have evolved into its deadly state 1,500 years ago.

"During sequencing we discovered that the bacteria changed by gaining some bits of DNA and losing others," Brendan Wren, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which participated in the study, said. "It has really adapted a different lifestyle in a remarkably short space of time, changing from being basically a stomach bug to a killer that has devastated the world."

Wren said that research would allow people to predict disease outbreaks in the future. The findings also come at a time of heightened fears regarding the possibility of bioterrorism.

GenomeWeb recently reported that  as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the federal government might step up funding for the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute, which specializes in sequencing microbial genomes.

Researchers believe that by understanding the genomic sequences of biologically destructive pathogens they could help to create the tools to deflect bioterrorist attacks.

In addition to the Sanger Center and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, St. Barholomew's Hospital, and Imperial College contributed to the sequencing effort. The Ministry of Defense at Porton Down is currently testing a vaccine for the bubonic plague.

Reseachers can access the details of the bubonic plague sequence on the Internet. The annotated sequence is also available in this week's issue of Nature magazine.