Pathogens and associated outbreaks of infectious disease exert selective pressure on human populations, and any changes in allele frequencies that result may be especially evident for genes involved in immunity. In this regard, the 1346-1353 Yersinia pestis-caused Black Death pandemic, with continued plague outbreaks spanning several hundred years, is one of the most devastating recorded in human history. To investigate the potential impact of Y. pestis on human immunity genes we extracted DNA from 36 plague victims buried in a mass grave in Ellwangen, Germany in the 16th century. We targeted 488 immune-related genes, including HLA, using a novel in-solution hybridization capture approach. In comparison with 50 modern native inhabitants of Ellwangen, we find differences in allele frequencies for variants of the innate immunity proteins Ficolin-2 and NLRP14 at sites involved in determining specificity. We also observed that HLA-DRB1*13 is more than twice as frequent in the modern population, whereas HLA-B alleles encoding an isoleucine at position 80 (I-80+), HLA C*06:02 and HLA-DPB1 alleles encoding histidine at position 9 are half as frequent in the modern population. Simulations show that natural selection has likely driven these allele frequency changes. Thus, our data suggests that allele frequencies of HLA genes involved in innate and adaptive immunity responsible for extracellular and intracellular responses to pathogenic bacteria, such as Y. pestis, could have been affected by the historical epidemics that occurred in Europe.
This isn’t surprising. But now that old DNA studies are getting cheap and mass-produced, I think people will be looking at changes in allele frequencies in the last 2,000 years a lot. More sophisticated methods for detecting natural selection either conclude or imply that sweeps are happening now, but this sort of study will confirm it (there’s evidence of natural selection in American Indians for obvious and unfortunate reasons).