The plague bacteria may have turned form a harmless gut germ into some of the deadliest bugs on earth through genetic mutation, new study suggests.
Yersinia pestis, or the bacteria that brought the plague to Europe hundreds of years ago, killed millions of people in Medieval times, but modern-day antibiotics rendered it harmless.
The U.S. CDC says that you can still get the bacteria from bug-carrying rodents or the fleas in their fur. And that’s how Europeans contracted the disease during the Death Plague that killed about 60 percent of Europe’s population.
But researchers at the Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago wanted to learn what made the tiny bugs so deadly. During their research they studied ancient strains of the bacteria in rodents.
Their main goal was to learn how and when the relatively harmless bacteria, which could only affect the digestive tract, evolved into invasive bugs that can spread throughout the entire body and irreversibly damage the lungs as it happens in the disease’s most lethal form, the pneumonic plague.
In our time, the bacteria can still infect the lungs but they cannot generate pneumonic plague, researchers explained. They also believe that that may have something to do with a gene called Pla.
The new research suggests that Pla allowed the bacteria to migrate to the lungs and work toward a deadly infection. Researchers introduced the gene in mice carrying the ancient strains of plague to see what happened to their lungs. As a result, the relatively harmless strain morphed into a very invasive one and was able to cause respiratory infections.
The team concluded that a single gene was enough to turn Yersinia pestis into a deadly bug although it had lost and gained countless genes over the course of millennia. Moreover, Pla gene tests revealed a gene mutation in more recent Y. Pestis strains that allowed the bacteria to target the lymph nodes and cause the bubonic plague.
Scientists explained that the Pla gene underwent several mutations. But as the gene evolved, the disease became more deadly and invasive. Additionally, the team found that pneumonic plague required only small amounts of genetic material to emerge when Pla had mutated.
“This research helps us better understand how bacteria can adapt to new host environments to cause disease by acquiring small bits of DNA,”
said Wyndham Lathem, senior author of the study and researcher at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
The study was published Tuesday in Nature Communications.
Image Source: News.com.au
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