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Concept: Yersinia pestis


Yersinia pestis causes the fatal respiratory disease pneumonic plague. Y. pestis recently evolved from the gastrointestinal pathogen Y. pseudotuberculosis; however, it is not known at what point Y. pestis gained the ability to induce a fulminant pneumonia. Here we show that the acquisition of a single gene encoding the protease Pla was sufficient for the most ancestral, deeply rooted strains of Y. pestis to cause pneumonic plague, indicating that Y. pestis was primed to infect the lungs at a very early stage in its evolution. As Y. pestis further evolved, modern strains acquired a single amino-acid modification within Pla that optimizes protease activity. While this modification is unnecessary to cause pneumonic plague, the substitution is instead needed to efficiently induce the invasive infection associated with bubonic plague. These findings indicate that Y. pestis was capable of causing pneumonic plague before it evolved to optimally cause invasive infections in mammals.

Concepts: Immune system, Bacteria, Yersinia pestis, Bubonic plague, Black Death, Plague, Pneumonic plague, Bacterial diseases


Ancient DNA (aDNA) recovered from plague victims of the second plague pandemic (14th to 17th century), excavated from two different burial sites in Germany, and spanning a time period of more than 300 years, was characterized using single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) analysis. Of 30 tested skeletons 8 were positive for Yersinia pestis-specific nucleic acid, as determined by qPCR targeting the pla gene. In one individual (MP-19-II), the pla copy number in DNA extracted from tooth pulp was as high as 700 gene copies/μl, indicating severe generalized infection. All positive individuals were identical in all 16 SNP positions, separating phylogenetic branches within nodes N07_N10 (14 SNPs), N07_N08 (SNP s19) and N06_N07 (s545), and were highly similar to previously investigated plague victims from other European countries. Thus, beside the assumed continuous reintroduction of Y. pestis from central Asia in multiple waves during the second pandemic, long-term persistence of Y. pestis in Europe in a yet unknown reservoir host has also to be considered.

Concepts: DNA, Genetics, Molecular biology, SNP array, Single-nucleotide polymorphism, Europe, Yersinia pestis, Black Death


Yersinia pestis has caused at least three human plague pandemics. The second (Black Death, 14-17th centuries) and third (19-20th centuries) have been genetically characterised, but there is only a limited understanding of the first pandemic, the Plague of Justinian (6-8th centuries). To address this gap, we sequenced and analysed draft genomes of Y pestis obtained from two individuals who died in the first pandemic.

Concepts: Pandemic, Yersinia pestis, Bubonic plague, Black Death, Plague, Third Pandemic, Pandemics, Plague of Justinian


Plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, is one of the deadliest infectious diseases in human history, and still causes worrying outbreaks in Africa and South America. Despite the historical and current importance of plague, several questions remain unanswered concerning its transmission routes and infection risk factors. The plague outbreak that started in September 1665 in the Derbyshire village of Eyam claimed 257 lives over 14 months, wiping out entire families. Since previous attempts at modelling the Eyam plague, new data have been unearthed from parish records revealing a much more complete record of the disease. Using a stochastic compartmental model and Bayesian analytical methods, we found that both rodent-to-human and human-to-human transmission played an important role in spreading the infection, and that they accounted, respectively, for a quarter and three-quarters of all infections, with a statistically significant seasonality effect. We also found that the force of infection was stronger for infectious individuals living in the same household compared with the rest of the village. Poverty significantly increased the risk of disease, whereas adulthood decreased the risk. These results on the Eyam outbreak contribute to the current debate on the relative importance of plague transmission routes.

Concepts: Epidemiology, Disease, Infectious disease, Africa, Infection, Transmission and infection of H5N1, Yersinia pestis, Black Death


Plague ecology is characterized by sporadic epizootics, then periods of dormancy. Building evidence suggests environmentally ubiquitous amebae act as feral macrophages and hosts to many intracellular pathogens. We conducted environmental genetic surveys and laboratory co-culture infection experiments to assess whether plague bacteria were resistant to digestion by 5 environmental ameba species. First, we demonstrated that Yersinia pestis is resistant or transiently resistant to various ameba species. Second, we showed that Y. pestis survives and replicates intracellularly within Dictyostelium discoideum amebae for ˃48 hours postinfection, whereas control bacteria were destroyed in <1 hour. Finally, we found that Y. pestis resides within ameba structures synonymous with those found in infected human macrophages, for which Y. pestis is a competent pathogen. Evidence supporting amebae as potential plague reservoirs stresses the importance of recognizing pathogen-harboring amebae as threats to public health, agriculture, conservation, and biodefense.

Concepts: Immune system, Bacteria, Dictyostelium, Yersinia pestis, Bubonic plague


Abstract Urban Norway and black rats (Rattus norvegicus and Rattus rattus) are the source of a number of pathogens responsible for significant human morbidity and mortality in cities around the world. These pathogens include zoonotic bacteria (Leptospira interrogans, Yersina pestis, Rickettsia typhi, Bartonella spp., Streptobacillus moniliformis), viruses (Seoul hantavirus), and parasites (Angiostrongylus cantonensis). A more complete understanding of the ecology of these pathogens in people and rats is critical for determining the public health risks associated with urban rats and for developing strategies to monitor and mitigate those risks. Although the ecology of rat-associated zoonoses is complex, due to the multiple ways in which rats, people, pathogens, vectors, and the environment may interact, common determinants of human disease can still be identified. This review summarizes the ecology of zoonoses associated with urban rats with a view to identifying similarities, critical differences, and avenues for further study.

Concepts: Epidemiology, Bacteria, Microbiology, Rat, Yersinia pestis, Brown rat, Zoonosis, Old World rats and mice


Plague is an ancient disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and transmitted by rodent flea bites that continues to surprise us with first-ever events. This review documents plague in human cases in the 1st decade of the 21st century and updates our knowledge of clinical manifestations, transmission during outbreaks, diagnostic testing, antimicrobial treatment, and vaccine development. In the United States, 56 persons were reported to have the disease, of which seven died. Worldwide, 21,725 persons were affected with 1,612 deaths, for a case-fatality rate of 7.4%. The Congo reported more cases than any other country, including two large outbreaks of pneumonic plague, surpassing Madagascar, which had the most cases in the previous decade. Two United States scientists suffered fatal accidental exposures: a wildlife biologist, who carried out an autopsy on a mountain lion in Arizona in 2007, and a geneticist with subclinical hemochromatosis in Chicago, who was handling an avirulent strain of Y. pestis in 2009. Antimicrobial drugs given early after the onset of symptoms prevented many deaths; those recommended for treatment and prophylaxis included gentamicin, doxycycline, and fluoroquinolones, although fluoroquinolones have not been adequately tested in humans. Fleas that do not have their guts blocked by clotted blood meals were shown to be better transmitters of plague than blocked fleas. Under development for protection against bioterrorist use, a subunit vaccine containing F1 and V antigens of Y. pestis was administered to human volunteers eliciting antibodies without any serious side effects. These events, although showing progress, suggest that plague will persist in rodent reservoirs mostly in African countries burdened by poverty and civil unrest, causing death when patients fail to receive prompt antimicrobial treatment.

Concepts: Flea, Death, 21st century, Yersinia pestis, Bubonic plague, Black Death, Plague, Pneumonic plague


Following a wide-area biological terror attack, numerous decontamination technologies, techniques, and strategies will be required for rapid remediation. Establishing an understanding of how disinfectants will perform under field conditions is of critical importance. The purpose of this study was to determine the efficacy of several liquid decontaminants, when used to inactivate vegetative biological agents on environmental surfaces. Aluminum, carpet, concrete, glass, and wood coupons were inoculated with 1×10(8)CFU of Burkholderia mallei, Francisella tularensis, Vibrio cholerae, or Yersinia pestis. Using spray-based application methods, decontamination was then attempted with pH-adjusted bleach, 1% citric acid, 70% ethanol, quaternary ammonia, or Pine-Sol®. Results indicated that decontamination efficacy varied significantly by decontaminant and organism. Materials such as wood are difficult to decontaminate, even when using sporicides. The data presented here will help responders develop efficacious remediation strategies following a large-scale contamination incident.

Concepts: Bacteria, Acid, Fungus, Vibrio cholerae, Vinegar, Yersinia pestis, Francisella tularensis, Burkholderia mallei


Transmission of Yersinia pestis is greatly enhanced after it forms a bacterial biofilm in the foregut of the flea vector that interferes with normal blood feeding. Here we report that the ability to produce a normal foregut-blocking infection depends on induction of the Y. pestis PhoP-PhoQ two-component regulatory system in the flea. Y. pestis phoP-negative mutants achieved normal infection rates and bacterial loads in the flea midgut, but produced a less cohesive biofilm both in vitro and in the flea and had a greatly reduced ability to localize to and block the flea foregut. Thus, not only is the PhoP-PhoQ system induced in the flea gut environment, but this induction is required to produce a normal transmissible infection. The altered biofilm phenotype in the flea was not due to lack of PhoPQ-dependent or PmrAB-dependent addition of aminoarabinose to the Y. pestis lipid A, because an aminoarabinose-deficient mutant that is highly sensitive to cationic antimicrobial peptides had a normal phenotype in the flea digestive tract. In addition to enhancing transmissibility, induction of the PhoP-PhoQ system in the arthropod vector prior to transmission may preadapt Y. pestis to resist the initial encounter with the mammalian innate immune response.

Concepts: Immune system, Bacteria, Innate immune system, Enterobacteriaceae, Yersinia pestis, Bubonic plague, Yersinia, Antimicrobial peptides


The cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis, is prevalent worldwide, will parasitize animal reservoirs of plague, and is associated with human habitations in known plague foci. Despite its pervasiveness, limited information is available about the cat flea’s competence as a vector for Yersinia pestis. It is generally considered to be a poor vector, based on studies examining early-phase transmission during the first week after infection, but transmission potential by the biofilm-dependent proventricular-blocking mechanism has never been systematically evaluated. In this study, we assessed the vector competence of cat fleas by both mechanisms. Because the feeding behavior of cat fleas differs markedly from important rat flea vectors, we also examined the influence of feeding behavior on transmission dynamics.

Concepts: Flea, Yersinia pestis, Bubonic plague, Cat health, Cat flea, Pulicosis, Fleas, Veterinary entomology