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Vector Borne Zoonotic Dis. 2010 Jan-Feb;10(1):85-92. doi: 10.1089/vbz.2009.0043.

Recent findings regarding maintenance of enzootic variants of Yersinia pestis in sylvatic reservoirs and their significance in the evolution of epidemic plague.

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  • 1Division of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases, Bacterial Diseases Branch, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Foothills Campus, Fort Collins, Colorado 80521, USA.


Despite the widespread presence of bubonic plague in sylvatic reservoirs throughout the world, the causative agent (Yersinia pestis) evolved in its present form within the last 20,000 years from enteropathogenic Yersinia pseudotuberculosis. Comparison of the genomes from the two species revealed that Y. pestis possesses only a few unique plasmid-encoded genes that contribute to acute disease, whereas this organism has lost about 13% of the chromosomal genes that remain active in Y. pseudotuberculosis. These losses reflect readily detectable additions, deletions, transpositions, inversions, and acquisition of about 70 insertion sequence (IS) inserts, none of which are likely to promote increased virulence. In contrast, major enzymes of intermediary metabolism, including glucose 6-phosphate dehydrogenase (Zwf ) and aspartase, are present but not catalytically functional due to the presence of missense mutations. The latter are generally not detectable by the technology of bioinformatics and, in the case of Y. pestis, result in radical changes in the metabolic flow of carbon. As an important consequence, plague bacilli exhibit a stringent low-calcium response characterized by conversion of L-glutamate (and metabolically related amino acids) to L-aspartate with secretion of the latter into supernatant fluid at 37 degrees C in culture media containing Na(+) but lacking added Ca(2+). This phenomenon also occurs in vivo and likely adversely affects the bioenergetics of host amino acid pools. Curiously, aspartase is functional in all tested enzootic (pestoides) strains of Y. pestis. These isolates are typically restricted to the ancient plague reservoirs of Central Asia and Africa and are fully virulent in members of the rodent Superfamily Muroidea but avirulent in guinea pigs and man. The implications of these findings for the distribution and ecology of Y. pestis could be significant.

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