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Researchers at Duke University Medical Center have identified a previously unknown family of virulence factors that make the bacterium responsible for the plague especially efficient at killing its host.

In the process, the team not only demonstrated that the use of the common roundworm is a valid model for studying the virulence of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague. They also showed that the interaction between Y. pestis and the worm is quite similar to what occurs in mammals, including humans. The work indicates that the pathogen may use similar virulence mechanisms to infect evolutionary disperse organisms.

These findings are important, the researchers continued, since the pathogenesis system using the Caenorhabditis elegans worm can accelerate the process of better understanding Y. pestis pathogenesis. The shorter time and increased ease of experimentation can be especially important, the researchers continued, given potential use of Y. pestis as a biological weapon, they said.

The results of the Duke research will appear Aug. 26, 2005, in the on-line edition of European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) Reports to be published in print in October. The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of General Medical Science, the Southeast Regional Center for Emerging Infections and Biodefense (SERCEB) and the Duke Center for Translational Research.

"Our experiments have demonstrated how closely the Y. pestis-C. elegans model we developed mimics what happens when Y. pestis infects mammals," said Duke microbiologist Alejandro Aballay, Ph.D., lead researcher of the team. "This system should help speed the characterization of both pathogen and host functions that potentially can be targeted for intervention."

The Y. pestis bacterium primarily infects wild rodents, such as mice, rats and squirrels. It is usually transmitted by fleas, which spread the infection as they feed o
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