3 découvertes sur… : l’origine des grandes épidémies


Peste, lèpre et tuberculose sont encore responsables de terribles épidémies.Afin de mieux comprendre leur mode d’action, trois équipes scientifiques ont retracé l’histoire de ces trois fléaux.

1.  L’Europe médiévale a été un carrefour de la lèpre

Si l’Europe ne connaît aujourd’hui plus la lèpre, elle a été un véritable carrefour dans son expansion. L’analyse de 90 squelettes anglais, italiens et danois datés entre 300 et 1 400 ans apr. J.-C. vient en effet de prouver que la plupart des souches connues de cette maladie étaient passées par l’Europe. Deux hypothèses, selon les chercheurs européens qui les ont étudiées : soit la lèpre est née en Eurasie de l’ouest, soit toutes ces souches y ont été introduites avant la période médiévale. Leur propagation aurait pu être amplifiée par le commerce d’écureuils (pour leur viande ou leur fourrure), que certaines souches anciennes pouvaient infecter.

2.  La peste bubonique est apparue il y a 4 000 ans

Quand la bactérie Yersinia pestis a-t-elle acquis la capacité à infecter les puces, provoquant ainsi les épidémies de peste dite « bubonique » ? Des chercheurs allemands ont retrouvé sa trace en Russie, dans la tombe de deux individus décédés il y a 3 800 ans. Selon l’analyse du génome de ces bactéries, la peste bubonique serait née il y a 4 000 ans environ, 1 000 ans plus tôt qu’admis jusqu’alors, et possiblement dans les steppes eurasiennes.

3.  L’Empire romain aurait exporté la tuberculose

En comparant les génomes de 552 bactéries responsables de la tuberculose, des chercheurs américains en ont retracé l’histoire. Originaire d’Afrique, elle s’est divisée en différentes souches il y a 5 000 ans environ.

Mais si certaines sont restées cantonnées à des zones géographiques, d’autres se sont répandues dans le monde. C’est le cas de la souche L4,apparue au I er siècle apr. J. -C. , et aujourd’hui très concentrée sur le pourtour méditerranéen.

Selon les chercheurs, l’expansion de l’Empire romain aurait favorisé l’essor de cette souche.


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