TGen, NAU, ASU complete sequence of Arizona plague

TGen, NAU, ASU complete sequence of Arizona plague
Genome could aid bioterrorism efforts

July 1, 2003

Scientists from the Translational Genomics Research Institute, Northern Arizona University and Arizona State University today announced they have determined the complete DNA sequence of Arizona plague.
This achievement marks the first whole-genome sequence determination from a freeliving organism in the state of Arizona and should lead to a better understanding of the disease in the Southwest and the world.

The plague genome was sequenced through a collaboration among Northern Arizona University, TGen and Arizona State University. The research was led by Dr. Paul Keim, Professor and Chair of Microbiology at Northern Arizona University and Director of the Pathogen Genomics Division at TGen, and Dr. Jeff Touchman, Director of the TGen DNA Sequencing Center and also Assistant Professor of Biology at Arizona State University.

"This is an important achievement in a number of ways. It is the first direct application of genome sequencing performed in Arizona on an Arizona living organism. It also will provide an important foundation for our continuing analyses of possible bioterrorism threats," Keim said.

The Arizona team is optimistic this completed genome sequence will lead to important insights into plague, which continues to be prevalent in the southwestern United States. Arizona and New Mexico have the highest incidence of the disease. Although few humans contract plague today, it continues to be prevalent in natural animal populations.

"Our success in this first sequencing illustrates the strength of collaboration. We were able to work quickly because we drew on the combined expertise of all the members of our team. We know todays breakthrough is the first of many," Touchman said.

The team used a plague strain isolated in 2002 from a prairie dog colony just west of Flagstaff. Two other strain genomes have been previously determined from other locations by The Sanger Center in England and the University of Wisconsin.

"Comparison of the Arizona strain genome to these will provide insights into how this pathogen is different in different parts of the world," said Dr. Jeffrey Trent, TGen President and Scientific Director.

Plague is a disease with both historical and current importance. Plague epidemics racked the Roman Empire during the Justinian reign and the so-called Black Death ravaged Europe during the Middle Ages. The re-emergence of plague in the 19th century took advantage of trans-global commerce to spread from China to west coast American ports at the turn of the last century.

In the 20th century, plague became established in the southwestern United States. Currently, plague is well established in northern Arizona. It has been hotly debated as to whether the low human incidence is due to genetic changes in the pathogen, or ecological differences between epidemic situations, as existed in the Middle Ages and our current living conditions. The Pathogen Division will continue to work on differentiating between these possibilities.

Plague also has been used as a biological weapon since the Middle Ages when sieging armies would catapult plague victims into fortresses. More recently, plague was one of the primary biological weapons developed by the Soviet Union. Today, it is recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of the top biological threat agents for bioterrorism.

"The whole genome sequence will facilitate precise identification of plague strains via 'DNA fingerprinting'. Such microbial forensic tracking should help to deter bioterrorism, but certainly will aid in the identification of bioterrorism perpetrators," Keim said.

TGen and the Arizona Board of Regents have filed a provisional patent for intellectual material derived from this study. These patents will allow the development of high resolution diagnostic assays for epidemiology and forensic analysis. This represents the first patents filed from TGen research efforts and occurred in the first year of research operations.

About TGen
The mission of the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) is to make and translate genomic discoveries into advances in human health. "Translational research" is a relatively new field employing innovative advances arising from the Human Genome Project to apply to the development of diagnostics, prognostics and therapies for cancer, neurologic disorders, diabetes and other complex diseases. For more information about TGen, visit its Web site,

About ASU
Arizona State University is one of the premier metropolitan public research universities in the nation. Enrolling more than 57,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students on three campuses in metropolitan Phoenix, ASU maintains a tradition of academic excellence in core disciplines, and has become an important global center for innovative interdisciplinary teaching and research. ASU offers outstanding resources for study and research, including libraries and museums with important collections, studios and performing arts spaces for creative endeavor, and unsurpassed state-of-the-art scientific and technological laboratories and research facilities.

About NAU
The learning environment at NAU is unmatched for natural beauty and for studentcentered programs and services. We promote individual development through small classes, close interaction with faculty and sophisticated learning technologies more commonly found at the nations learning private institutions. The rich and diverse natural environment in which NAU is located provides exceptional research opportunities in the fields of biology, geology, ecology, archaeology, geography, anthropology, engineering and forestry. We also embrace our mission to serve rural Arizona and Native American people and we seek a partnership in providing economic, cultural, and social opportunities for all citizens of the region.

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