Prairie Dogs Yield Bioterrorism Insight

Plague Outbreaks Help Scientists Hone Method for Tracing Attacks

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Ecologist Dave Wagner blows on a cloth that will go in a prairie dog hole.

Northern Arizona University ecologist Dave Wagner blows on a flannel cloth that will go in a prairie dog hole. The carbon dioxide he exhales attracts plague-carrying fleas, which are trapped in a cloth. David Kestenbaum, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Kestenbaum, NPR
A prairie dog skeleton.

A prairie dog skeleton at a plague site. In the 14th century, the Black Death killed an estimated 25 million people. Today the disease is treatable with antibiotics. Outbreaks are still common among prairie dogs -- and lethal. Dave Wagner, Northern Arizona University hide caption

itoggle caption Dave Wagner, Northern Arizona University

In a typical year, several people in the United States come down with an unusual disease: the plague. It's often transmitted by fleas that carry it from prairie dogs or other rodents.

But there's another possible source of plague infection — bioterrorist attacks. The plague ranks high on the list of biological weapons that might be used in a terrorist attack; a single bacterium in the lungs can trigger the disease. So scientists are searching for a way to quickly determine if a case is natural or criminal.

For answers, they're turning to prairie dogs living outside Flagstaff, Ariz. It's not unusual for an outbreak to kill an entire colony of wild prairie dogs. A group of Northern Arizona University researchers collect plague-carrying fleas from the burrows and analyze the bacteria's DNA. They then characterize the different strains and pinpoint the geographic regions where they're found.

NPR's David Kestenbaum traveled to Arizona for a look at how the NAU research fits into the larger world of identifying biological agents used in terrorist attacks.

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