EXPERTS from York University are to study how much rats might cause pandemics.

The major research comes as the university has received more than £5m for three major projects.

The European Research Council has given the university £1.7m for the five year rats project, £1.7m for chemical biology research and a further £1.7m for studies concerning enzymes.

Dr David Orton from the Department of Archaeology will research Rats and the Archaeology of Trade, Urbanism and Disease in past European Societies, which will chart the history of rats in Europe from late prehistoric origins to the 19th century.

The work also includes staff from the history and biology departments, as well as academics from across 20 countries.

The black rat, David told the Press, famously blamed for the Back Death, probably came from India. The brown rat probably came from China and is believed to have arrived in Europe a few centuries ago, since when it has almost completely replaced black rats in places like Britain.

The research will use rats to look at how human trade patterns changed as black rats thrive in human settlements. They disappeared in Britain after the Roman period when there was less urbanism and less trade, only returning in the Viking era, when trade and towns also returned.

The studies will also “get to the bottom of the ongoing argument about whether or not rats (and their fleas) were the main way that plague spread during the Black Death and other historic pandemics - and whether changes in rat populations might have something to do with why plague eventually disappeared from Europe in the 18th Century.”

In addition to looking at rat bones, the research will analyse rat DNA and protein, including using techniques devised in York a decade ago.

York will be featured in using rat bones from Roman and Viking sites in York, which will test the theory they went extinct after the Roman era as no rats have been found in the various Saxon era sites in York.

Comparisons will also be made with other sites across Europe to work out where the second wave of rats came from, continued David, who has previously research urbanisation and fish supplies.

In addition to revealing the links between rats and human settlement, David says the most important revelation will be on the role of rats in causing plagues.

He said: “The Black Death was in the 14th Century, but it marked the beginning of several centuries of outbreaks across Europe - plague only eventually disappeared from Europe in the 18th Century and no-one really knows why - it's still very much a problem in many parts of the world.”

Professor Nicky Milner, Head of the Department of Archaeology, said: “We are absolutely delighted that David has been awarded this highly competitive and hugely prestigious grant. It is an important subject in that it will shed light on the profound impacts rats have on human societies, such as being agents of disease.”