A Role for Early-Phase Transmission in the Enzootic Maintenance of Plague

Cedar L. Mitchell, Ashley R. Schwarzer, Adélaïde Miarinjara, Clayton O. Jarrett, Angela D. Luis, B. Joseph Hinnebusch

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4 Scopus citations


Yersinia pestis, the bacterial agent of plague, is enzootic in many parts of the world within wild rodent populations and is transmitted by different flea vectors. The ecology of plague is complex, with rodent hosts exhibiting varying susceptibilities to overt disease and their fleas exhibiting varying levels of vector competence. A long-standing question in plague ecology concerns the conditions that lead to occasional epizootics among susceptible rodents. Many factors are involved, but a major one is the transmission efficiency of the flea vector. In this study, using Oropsylla montana (a ground squirrel flea that is a major plague vector in the western United States), we comparatively quantified the efficiency of the two basic modes of flea-borne transmission. Transmission efficiency by the early-phase mechanism was strongly affected by the host blood source. Subsequent biofilm-dependent transmission by blocked fleas was less influenced by host blood and was more efficient. Mathematical modeling predicted that early-phase transmission could drive an epizootic only among highly susceptible rodents with certain blood characteristics, but that transmission by blocked O. montana could do so in more resistant hosts irrespective of their blood characteristics. The models further suggested that for most wild rodents, exposure to sublethal doses of Y. pestis transmitted during the early phase may restrain rapid epizootic spread by increasing the number of immune, resistant individuals in the population.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1010996
JournalPLoS Pathogens
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2022


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