Limits of Plague: Ecological Contraints on Plague Reservoirs
About the project
Yersinia pestis caused large plague pandemics in Medieval Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. While its human burden is far lower today, the bacterium persists widely in the semi-arid deserts, steppes, montane meadows and the tropics of the Americas, Africa and Asia, in ground squirrels, jirds, voles, gerbils, rats & marmots, as well as their fleas.
The ecological constraints that define where plague can persist in the wild are unknown. For non-ecologists, it is tempting to assume that regions with the right species (or even genus) of rodent can be potential plague reservoirs, but that intuition breaks down rapidly when comparing the rodent distribution maps with plague reservoir maps.
Our primary objective is to understand the ecological constraints that define where plague reservoirs can exist. We will approach this problem by building ecological niche models (ENMs) that avoid the limitations of other attempts (e.g. focused on a regional scope only, using limited datasets, and generic rather than plague-specific input variables). With a vast amount of data now available from the former USSR plague control program and from historical records, the main challenge for us lies in using the right methodology to build and project ENMs as far across the globe as is reliably possible, and to test and select the right plague-relevant input variables for the models (e.g.climate instability, soil properties).
Our use cases are both historic and current. We will answer how suitable medieval Europe, Asia and North Africa were as past plague reservoirs, something that since the ancient DNA breakthroughs in plague research is now heavily speculated upon, as well as learn more about the potential lifespan of those reservoirs. Finally, a better understanding what defines a
plague reservoir helps with plague surveillance now, and in a future world that is in flux with climate change.
This project is funded by the Research Council of Norway (RCN)
UiO Project Number: 144808
01.03.2019 - 31.01.2024
Krauer, Fabienne; Viljugrein, Hildegunn & Dean, Katharine Rose (2021). The influence of temperature on the seasonality of historical plague outbreaks. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Biological Sciences. ISSN 0962-8452. 288(1954), p. 1–9. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2020.2725. Full text in Research Archive
Nilsson, Pernille; Solbakken, Monica Hongrø; Schmid, Boris Valentijn; Orr, Russell; Lv, Ruichen & Cui, Yujun [Show all 14 contributors for this article] (2020). The Genome of the Great Gerbil Reveals Species-Specific Duplication of an MHCII Gene. Genome Biology and Evolution (GBE). ISSN 1759-6653. 12(2), p. 3832–3849. doi: 10.1093/gbe/evaa008. Full text in Research Archive
Cui, Yujun; Schmid, Boris Valentijn; Cao, Hanli; Dai, Xiang; Du, Zhongmin & Easterday, William Ryan [Show all 24 contributors for this article] (2020). Evolutionary selection of biofilm-mediated extended phenotypes in Yersinia pestis in response to a fluctuating environment. Nature Communications. ISSN 2041-1723. 11, p. 1–8. doi: 10.1038/s41467-019-14099-w. Full text in Research Archive