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Vector Borne Zoonotic Dis. 2015 May;15(5):291-302. doi: 10.1089/vbz.2014.1714.

Single-Nucleotide Polymorphisms Reveal Spatial Diversity Among Clones of Yersinia pestis During Plague Outbreaks in Colorado and the Western United States.

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1Department of Health Sciences, Carroll College, Helena, Montana.
2Department of Biology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado.
5Division of Vector-Borne Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fort Collins, Colorado.
3Earth Sciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, California.
4Ariosa Diagnostics, San Jose, California.



In western North America, plague epizootics caused by Yersinia pestis appear to sweep across landscapes, primarily infecting and killing rodents, especially ground squirrels and prairie dogs. During these epizootics, the risk of Y. pestis transmission to humans is highest. While empirical models that include climatic conditions and densities of rodent hosts and fleas can predict when epizootics are triggered, bacterial transmission patterns across landscapes, and the scale at which Y. pestis is maintained in nature during inter-epizootic periods, are poorly defined. Elucidating the spatial extent of Y. pestis clones during epizootics can determine whether bacteria are propagated across landscapes or arise independently from local inter-epizootic maintenance reservoirs.


We used DNA microarray technology to identify single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in 34 Y. pestis isolates collected in the western United States from 1980 to 2006, 21 of which were collected during plague epizootics in Colorado. Phylogenetic comparisons were used to elucidate the hypothesized spread of Y. pestis between the mountainous Front Range and the eastern plains of northern Colorado during epizootics. Isolates collected from across the western United States were included for regional comparisons.


By identifying SNPs that mark individual clones, our results strongly suggest that Y. pestis is maintained locally and that widespread epizootic activity is caused by multiple clones arising independently at small geographic scales. This is in contrast to propagation of individual clones being transported widely across landscapes. Regionally, our data are consistent with the notion that Y. pestis diversifies at relatively local scales following long-range translocation events. We recommend that surveillance and prediction by public health and wildlife management professionals focus more on models of local or regional weather patterns and ecological factors that may increase risk of widespread epizootics, rather than predicting or attempting to explain epizootics on the basis of movement of host species that may transport plague.


Colorado; Plague–Single-nucleotide polymorphisms; Spatial diversity; Western United States; Yersinia pestis

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