Microbial Forensics of a Natural Pneumonic Plague Outbreak

For bioterrorism agents like Yersinia pestis it is necessary to identify the strain and its source specifically enough for forensic use. Categorizing an epidemic isolate and tracing its source is always important for public health measures, but the level of precision is far higher for legal uses. Developing forensic techniques to characterize and parse very similar strains of a species and trace it to a specific location robs terrorists (and states) of the ability to deny responsibility for an attack (Koblentz & Tucker, 2010). The ability to launch a secret and deniable attack on an enemy has been viewed as one of attractive advantages of biological warfare.

A Chinese group led by Ruifu Yang and Yujun Cui recognized that only whole genome sequencing could adequately parse the strains of the monomorphic species Yersinia pestis but that the computing power necessary to compare entire genomic sequences as the database enlarges is impractical (Yan et al, 2014). Unlike most pathogens, typing only specific regions of the genome are just not enough to get a unique genetic fingerprint for low genetic variability pathogens like Yersinia pestis. This is yet another indication of the genomic similarity of all Yersinia pestis strains.

The Chinese group developed a two stage method of classification detailed enough for forensic work.  They took a twelve person outbreak of pneumonic plague contracted from a dog in 2009 in the Qinghai area of Tibet / western China, specifically at Xinghai as their test case (Wang et al, 2010). In the first step they took six cases including the two dogs who died in the outbreak and compared them to 24 strains representing the 23 phylogroups of the phylogenetic tree. This comparison selected which branch of the phylogenetic tree the outbreak belonged. There were no SNP (single nucleotide polymorphisms) different between the seven isolates confirming a common source, one of the dogs based on outbreak narratives. The seven isolates were all the same strain belonging to branch 1.IN2 of the tree. The second step was to then compare the isolates to all known strains of 1.IN2 shown below. Since these strains all come from the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, they were able to add other strains historically isolated from this region.

Distribution of 1.IN in Qinghai  (site source)
Distribution of 1.IN2 in Qinghai (Yan et al, 2014, click to enlarge)

The results localized the new isolates (r) as being from the same focus as strains g, r, s, t. u plus, interestingly, the 0.PE7 strain (green b) that is over 300 SNPs different from the 1.IN2 strains. All of these other strains from this branch are scattered around the Qinghai region near Lake Qinghai. The polysomy (branch point) that produced all of the 1.IN2 in Xinghai (g,r,s,t,u) is located closer to the eastern end of Lake Qinghai, where the Chinese team hypothesizes this these strains began. The new outbreak isolates did not match any previous isolates from Xinghai which is testimony to the degree of movement of these strains around the region. Without the case narrative, they would not have been able to identify the specific foci at Xinghai, but would have got it to the region of east Qinghai lake. This illustrates how important sampling all of these foci are because a biological attack is likely to be far from its site of environmental isolation. Characterization of all laboratory strains, obviously, needs to happen as well for forensic tracing.

Reconstructing the historical epidemiology of this region will be an area of continuing research. The location of 0.PE7, the most genetically ancestral strain ever found — the closest the common ancestor of all Yersinia pestis, plus the likelihood that the ‘big bang’ epidemic (or epizootic), that produced the third pandemic, represented by node 12, was also in this region. (Each of the nodes represents a bang of evolutionary diversity, with all major branch points in the lineage probably representing large epidemics or epizootics.) The full diversity of strains in this region (unrelated to the outbreak isolates) are not shown in the figure above. This same group lead by Ruifu Yang  produced the primary phylogenetic tree of Yersinia pestis in China that noted that the molecular clock is not constant (Cui et al, 2012), here calculates that N12 is about 212 years old (95% confidence being 116 to 336 years ago) (Yan et al, 2014).  They note that in the history of Qinghai, there was a major human outbreak in the year 1754 CE linked to a Buddhist missionary working in Qinghai and Gansu provinces (Yan et al, 2014). Its is unclear if we can trust this narrative at all; scapegoats are common in plague narratives. Linking the 1.IN2 strains from Qinghai to four of the five o.IN2 isolates from Tibet suggest that the epidemic moved from Qinghai to Tibet in one ancient epidemic, though remaining isolate from Tibet looks like a more recent transmission from Qinghai. Regardless of the movements of 1.IN2, this area is believed to have been a site of long-term survival of Yersinia pestis, potentially over a thousand years, so that it has a lot to teach us about enduring foci.

Microbial forensics has already been used in criminal investigations, court cases and intelligence operations, such as the ‘Amerithrax’ (anthrax) attacks of 2001, anthrax spores sprayed over Japan by a cult, and suspicious plague cases in New York City (Yan et al, 2014). Phylogenetic microbial forensics was successfully used to show the intentional transmission of HIV from Dr Richard Schmidt to his girlfriend in his 1998 trial. This was the first successful use of microbial forensics in a court case (Koblentz & Tucker, 2010). In these cases, isolates are taken from the accused, the victim, other sexual partners, and the local population so show phylogenetic linkage between the accused and victim in the context of the local epidemiology.  The United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, Canada, Germany, Australia, Singapore, and now China are involved in the development of microbial forensics (Koblentz & Tucker, 2010; Yan et al, 2014).


Koblentz, G. D., & Tucker, J. B. (2010). Tracing an Attack: The Promise and Pitfalls of Microbial Forensics. Survival, 52(1), 159–186. doi:10.1080/00396331003612521

Yan Y, Wang H, Li D, Yang X, Wang Z, et al. (2014) Two-Step Source Tracing Strategy of Yersinia pestis and Its Historical Epidemiology in a Specific Region. PLoS ONE 9(1): e85374. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0085374

Wang, H., Cui, Y., Wang, Z., Wang, X., Guo, Z., Yan, Y., et al. (2010). A Dog-Associated Primary Pneumonic Plague in Qinghai Province, China. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 52(2), 185–190. doi:10.1093/cid/ciq107

Cui, Y., Yu, C., Yan, Y., Li, D., Li, Y., Jombart, T., et al. (2012). Historical variations in mutation rate in an epidemic pathogen, Yersinia pestis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(2), 577–582. doi:10.1073/pnas.1205750110/-/DCSupplemental/sd01.xls

4 thoughts on “Microbial Forensics of a Natural Pneumonic Plague Outbreak

  1. Interesting work for sure…this bit reconstruction of the history of YP is a part of a larger Holy Grail of microbial forensics. This is not unlike some work we did at ECBC, looking at the history of B. globigii as a historical BW simulant (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21464989). This kind of analysis is soon going to be a matter of course both for biological defense and public health.

    Following along on Twitter!


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