MADISON, Wis. By any measure, tuberculosis (TB) is a wildly successful pathogen. It infects as many as two billion people in every corner of the world, with a new infection of a human host estimated to occur every second.
Now, thanks to a new analysis of dozens of tuberculosis genomes gathered from around the world, scientists are getting a more detailed picture of why TB is so prevalent and how it evolves to resist countermeasures. Writing today (Aug. 21, 2013) in the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) Pathogens, a team led by University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Caitlin Pepperell describes a bacterium that marches in lockstep with human population growth and history, evolving to take advantage of the most crowded and wretched human conditions.
"It's as though the bacterium places bets on human behavior," says Pepperell, formerly of Stanford University, and now a professor of medicine and medical microbiology at UW-Madison. "It always bets that humans will go to war, send people to refugee camps, and gather in miserable places. Historically, that's been a winning bet on the bacterium's part."
The PLoS Pathogens study, whose senior author is Marcus Feldman of Stanford, reveals that tuberculosis experienced a 25-fold expansion worldwide in the 17th century, a time when human populations underwent explosive growth and European exploration of Africa, the Americas, Asia and Oceania was at its peak.
"The timing is coincident with expansion, urbanization and colonial migrations of global human populations," Pepperell explains. "These findings suggest that much of the current TB pandemic has its origins in historical events of the last three centuries."
TB is only transmitted by people, and the organism cannot survive in the environment. It thrives, however, in the crowded conditions of prisons, refugee camps and slums, and TB populations tend to be dominated by the bacteria "lucky" enough to
|Contact: Caitlin Pepperell|
University of Wisconsin-Madison