The new research adds an important piece to understanding the forces behind the emergence of plague, which occurred within the past 1,500 to 20,000 years. "Our research illustrates how a single genetic change can profoundly affect the evolution of disease. In this case, that genetic change set the stage for a completely new route of disease transmission," notes B. Joseph Hinnebusch, Ph.D., lead author of the study and plague expert in Rocky Mountain Laboratories, a Montana outpost of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The gene allowed the bacteria to be transmitted through the bite of an insect - in this case, the flea - an adaptation that distinguishes Yersinia pestis, the plague germ, from all closely related, more benign gut bacteria. In turn, as Y. pestis adapted to rely on its new blood-feeding host for transmission, the emergence of more deadly bacterial strains would have been favored, the researchers conclude.
The evolution of the plague bacterium is just one example of how microbes persistently challenge researchers by unexpectedly repackaging themselves, in any of multiple ways, to emerge as novel or more virulent agents of human disease.
In the new report, Dr. Hinnebusch and his colleagues from Sweden, Michigan, and NIAID describe how they explored the source of this gene and later identified the critical role it plays.
The gene codes for an enzyme known as PLD. Previous work indicated that Y. pestis pic
Contact: Laurie K. Doepel
NIH/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases