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Yersinia pestis

Yersinia pestis bacterium, belonging to the family Enterobacteriaceae. It is the infectious agent of bubonic plague, and can also cause pneumonic plague and septicemic plague. All forms have been responsible for enormous mortality in many fearsome epidemics throughout the history of mankind (without treatment, patients with the bubonic form die, and almost 100% with the pneumonic form), such as the Great Plague and the Black Death, the latter of which accounted for the death of approximately 25% of the European population. The role of Y. more...

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Pestis in the Black Death is today highly debated amongst historians, as scientific evidence is pointing away from it as the cause.

The genus Yersinia is Gram negative, bipolar staining coccobacilli, and, similarly to other Enterobacteriaceae, it has a fermentative metabolism. Yersinia pestis produces a antiphagocytic slime. The organism is motile when isolated, but becomes nonmotile in the mammalian host.


Y. pestis was discovered in 1894 by Swiss/French physician and bacteriologist from the Pasteur Institute, Alexandre Yersin, during an epidemic of plague in Hong-Kong. Yersin was a member of the Pasteur school of thought. Shibasaburo Kitasato, a Germany-trained Japanese bacteriologist who practiced Koch's methodology was also engaged at the time in finding the causative agent of plague. However, it was Yersin who actually linked plague with Yersinia pestis. This was originally called Pasteurella pestis, and was renamed after Yersin in 1967.

Pathogenicity and immunity

Pathogenicity is due to two antiphagocytic antigens, named F1 and VW, both required for virulence. They are produced by the bacterium at the temperature of 37°C, so this explains why insects, such as the flea, harbor non-virulent bacteria. Furthermore, Y. pestis survive and produce F1 and VW antigens within blood cells such as monocytes, but not in polymorphonuclear neutrophils. Natural or induced immunity is achieved by the production of specific opsonic antibodies against F1 and VW antigens. They induce phagocytosis neutrophils.

There is a formalin-inactivated vaccine available for adults at high risk, but it is not very effective and may cause severe inflammatory reactions. Experiments with genetic engineering of a vaccine based on F1 and VW antigens is underway and shows great promise.


The genome of the CO92 strain obtained from clinical isolate from the USA was recently sequenced. The chromosome sequence is 4,653,728 base pairs long. Like its cousins Yersinia pseudotuberculosis and Yersinia enterocolitica, Y. pestis is host to the plasmid pCD1. In addition, it also hosts two other plasmids, pPCP1 and pMT1 which are not carried by the other Yersinia species. Together, these plasmids, and a pathogenicity island called HPI, encode several proteins which cause the pathogenicity for which Y. pestis is famous. Among other things, these virulence factors are required for bacterial adhesion and injection of proteins into the host cell, invasion of bacteria into the host cell, and acquisition and binding of iron harvested from red blood cells. Y. pestis is thought to be descendant from Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, and is different only because of the presence of the virulence plasmids.hi


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Yersinia pestis genotyping
From Emerging Infectious Diseases, 8/1/05 by Gilles Vergnaud

To the Editor: Drancourt et al. (1) report the development of an original genotyping system for Yersinia pestis based on intergenic spacer sequencing. However, the approach appears to rely upon the characterization of polymorphisms due to tandem repeat variation. Eight spacers are used in the report, 7 of which contain tandem repeats, and the sequence variability used to produce the typing data and the strain clustering result from variation in the number of tandem repeats (and incorrect data analysis produces a dendrogram with 34 branches from only 19 different isolate types). Three of the spacers and associated polymorphisms were previously reported. Spacers YP3 and YP5 are, respectively, ms38 and ms56 (2); spacer YP10 is M61 (3). YP3 is later used to investigate ancient DNA samples, and 3 amplification products are described in detail. The sequences are compared to modern sequences by BLAST analysis, which is not relevant for tandem repeats. Instead, the Figure shows how internal variation within the array can be coded to facilitate interpretation. In this collection, Orientalis strains are "abcdeeef," whereas Antiqua strains from Africa are "abcdeef." All these different codes can be deduced one from the other by simple duplication and deletion events, with no need to invoke point mutations. The codes for all 3 ancient samples are identical to the Orientalis code "abcdeeef."

In conclusion, the data presented by Drancourt et al. do not appear to support their claim. They did not invent a new genotyping method but used the well-known multiple locus variable analysis (MLVA) number of tandem repeats approach. The finding that the "genotype Orientalis was involved in all three pandemics" is not valid since the Orientalis type is defined by a biochemical assay, resulting in all known Orientalis strains from a 93-bp glycerol-3-phosphate dehydrogenase microdeletion (4,5), which was not investigated here.

Gilles Vergnaud *

* Centre d'Etudes du Bouchet, Vert le Petit, France


(1.) Drancourt M, Roux V, Dang LV. Tran-Hung L, Castex D. Chenal-Francisque V, et al. Genotyping, Orientalis-like Yersinia pestis. and plague pandemics. Emerg Infect Dis. 2004;10:1585-92.

(2.) Le Fleche P, Hauck Y. Onteniente L, Prieur A, Denoeud F, Ramisse V, et al. A tandem repeats database for bacterial genomes: application to the genotyping of Yersinia pestis and Bacillus anthracis. BMC Microbiol. 2001;1:2.

(3.) Klevytska AM, Price LB, Schupp JM, Worsham PL, Wong J, Keim P. Identification and characterization of variable-number tandem repeats m the Yersinia pestis genome. J Clin Microbiol. 2001:39: 3179-85.

(4.) Motin VL, Georgescu AM, Elliott JM, Hu P, Worsham PL, Ott LL, et al. Genetic variability of Yersinia pestis isolates as predicted by PCR-based IS100 genotyping and analysis of structural genes encoding glycerol-3-phosphate dehydrogenase (glpD). J Bacteriol. 2002:184:1019-27.

(5.) Pourcel C, Andre-Mazeaud F, Neubauer H, Ramisse F, Vergnaud G. Tandem repeats analysis for the high resolution phylogenetic analysis of Yersinia pestis. BMC Microbiol. 2004:4:22.

Address for correspondence: Gilles Vergnaud, Department of Analytical Microbiology, Centre d'Etudes du Bouchet 91710, Vert le Petit, France; fax: 33-1-69-15-66-78; email:

In response: We thank Dr. Vergnaud for his response (1). Since the time of our publication (2), 2 articles related to our paper were either submitted or published. One (3) reported identification of Yersinia pestis-specific genes in teeth from patients who died during the Justinian plague; another proposed identification of Y pestis strains by using variable numbers of tandem repeats analysis (VNTR) (4). The authors concluded that isolates could easily be compared in their database by using 7 markers. As opposed to work with cultures where ample, high-quality DNA template is available, successful amplifications with 7 different primer sets cannot be achieved by using DNA extracted from ancient teeth (5). By comparing genome sequences, we evaluated short intergenic spacers that were more divergent. Divergences included mutations, deletions, and duplications (VNTR). Phylogenetically, an entire repeat unit has the same weight as that of a single nucleotide polymorphism. By sequencing, we have identified all events (single nucleotide polymorphism and VNTR). Sequencing is more versatile for use in strain identification (5), allows distinction at the species level, and can be applied directly on clinical and forensic samples.

The discovery of a unique sequence is critical to authenticate results in such controversial areas as paleomicrobiology (5). Fortunately, we have identified a unique sequence that contains several mutations. These mutations do not exclude this strain from being Y pestis (see Figure). Additionally, we doubt that our conclusions would have been accepted had we simply used the VNTR, demonstrating only an amplicon of the right size on a gel.

In conclusion, our results have been validated by others. The sequence is original and, therefore, authentic. Dr. Vergnaud agrees that the results we presented did represent a sequence associated with the Orientalis biovar. This finding may end the controversy.

Didier Raoult, * Michel Drancourt, * Pierre Edouard Fournier, * and Hiro Ogata *

* Centre National de Reference, Marseille, France


(1.) Vergnaud G. Yersinia pestis genotyping. Emerg Infect Dis. 2005:11:1317-8.

(2.) Drancourt M, Roux V, Dang LV, Tran-Hung L, Castex D, Chenal-Francisque V, et al. Genotyping, Orientalis-like Fetwinia pestis, and plague pandemics. Emerg Infect Dis. 2004;10:1585-92.

(3.) Weichmann I, Grupe G. Detection of Yersinia pestis DNA in two early medieval skeletal finds from Aschheim (Upper Bavaria, 6th century AD). Am J Phys Anthropol. 2005; 126:48-55.

(4.) Pourcel C, Andre-Mazeaud F, Neubauer H, Ramisse F, Vergnaud G. Tandem repeats analysis for the high resolution phylogenetic analysis of Yersinia pestis. BMC Microbiol. 2004;4:22.

(5.) Drancourt M, Raoult D. Paleomicrobiology: current issues and perspectives. Nat Rev Microbiol. 2005;3:23-35.

Address for correspondence: Didier Raoult, Unite des Rickettsies, Faculte de Medecine, 27 Bd Jean Moulin, 13385 Marseille Cedex 05, France; fax: 33-4-91-38-77-72;email:

COPYRIGHT 2005 U.S. National Center for Infectious Diseases
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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