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J Infect Dis. 2004 Aug 15;190(4):783-92. Epub 2004 Jul 12.

Transmission of Yersinia pestis from an infectious biofilm in the flea vector.

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  • 1Laboratory of Human Bacterial Pathogenesis, Rocky Mountain Laboratories, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Hamilton, Montana 59840, USA.


Transmission of plague by fleas depends on infection of the proventricular valve in the insect's foregut by a dense aggregate of Yersinia pestis. Proventricular infection requires the Y. pestis hemin storage (hms) genes; here, we show that the hms genes are also required to produce an extracellular matrix and a biofilm in vitro, supporting the hypothesis that a transmissible infection in the flea depends on the development of a biofilm on the hydrophobic, acellular surface of spines that line the interior of the proventriculus. The development of biofilm and proventricular infection did not depend on the 3 Y. pestis quorum-sensing systems. The extracellular matrix enveloping the Y. pestis biofilm in the flea appeared to incorporate components from the flea's blood meal, and bacteria released from the biofilm were more resistant to human polymorphonuclear leukocytes than were in vitro-grown Y. pestis. Enabling arthropod-borne transmission represents a novel function of a bacterial biofilm.

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