The Arab Maghreb is one of the most arid environments to host plague reservoirs. The most recent study on the area highlights the proximity of plague foci to salt water, either the Mediterranean Sea, Atlantic Ocean or importantly inland salt lakes (Malek et al, 2016). These inland salt springs, called chotts, are saltier than the ocean. They were specifically able to cultivate Y. pestis from high salt soil and isolate a high salt tolerant strain of Yersinia pestis from Algeria. Plague foci across North Africa were found at an average of 0.89 km from salt water, while the average distance from fresh water is 4.6 km.
They also note the importance of L-form Yersinia pestis in their environmental samples. L-form bacteria are an understudied cell wall deficient state that quite a few bacteria, including Yersinia pestis, use for long term survival. The L-form of Y. pestis may be important in environmental persistence. Because they are believed to have a slower reproduction rate, the L-form may also play a role in altering the molecular clock of some strains. To date, publications that focus on L-form Y. pestis have been in either Russian or Chinese. It seems clear that the L-form is found in some instances in Asia as well. Importantly, some L-form bacteria can regain their cell wall and return to active ‘normal’ growth.
Soil osmolarity is the key feature that allows (or requires) the L-form to persist. Withstanding osmotic tensions is the primary role of the cell wall. Without the cell wall, the cell loses its ‘normal’ shape, taking on a spherical shape determined by hydrophobic-hydrophilic interactions (like oil and water). As the cell membrane is primarily made of phospholipid, its the L-form shape resembles a sturdy oil globule or a liposome (B below). This was apparent by gram stain when the normal individual short rod-shaped (coccobacilli) cells transformed into clusters of completely round (cocci) cells. This was confirmed under the electron microscope where the change is very apparent.
They also isolated a strain, Algeria3, a descendant of the third pandemic, from soil containing 4% salt, that can grow in a 15% salt broth. Other Algerian isolates that were not found in high salt soils experimentally survived as well in high salt media if the salt content was ramped up in a step-wise fashion. Growth in high salt conditions altered their protein production to increase those related to osmoregulation, metabolism, outer membrane proteins and others of unknown function. Osmoregulation genes changes are a direct response to the higher salt concentration. The L-form cells are clearly still metabolically active.
Taken together these protein profiles suggest that it has adapted to survive in the salty soil with the ability to adjust its structure and function as necessary to persist. They note that other plague reservoirs are in regions of the world with salt lakes or other salty sources, but more environmental sampling will be necessary to determine if this is a universal Y. pestis capability. This all has obviously important implications for plague ecology.
Malek, M. A., Bitam, I., Levasseur, A., Terras, J., Gaudart, J., Azza, S., et al. (2016). Yersinia pestis halotolerance illuminates plague reservoirs. Scientific Reports, 7, 1–10.