Study finds bubonic plague host-cell tenet faulty

A new study finds that Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that cause bubonic plague, like the one pictured (red), doesn't need a host cell to grow. | Courtesy of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine

A recent study at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine has shown that the bacteria that cause the bubonic plague do not need to hijack a host cell to travel to the lymph nodes and multiply.

Researchers in the study, published in the journal PLoS Pathogens, found that the bacteria, Yersinia pestis, don't use host cells, but travel on their own to the lymph nodes in small amounts.

The bacteria get trapped in the skin, and only a few microbes escape to reach lymph nodes and cause the plague.

“Anytime you find something where the host is winning, you want to exploit it,” Virginia Miller, a UNC professor of microbiology and immunology, said. “If we can understand how the host and the bacteria contribute to this bottleneck, then this could become something we’d target so we could either ramp up what’s causing the bottleneck or slow down the infection.”

The plague is still contracted by several people in the western United States each year, and outbreaks have occurred in Africa and India. An outbreak is currently plaguing Madagascar.

The new information will allow researchers to study how strains of bacteria can cause diseases, and how severe diseases borne from insects -- such as malaria, bubonic plague and dengue fever -- cause infections.

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