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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Metapopulation structure for perpetuation of Francisella tularensis tularensis

Heidi K Goethert, Benjamin Saviet and Sam R Telford*

Author Affiliations

Division of Infectious Diseases, Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, 200 Westboro Rd, North Grafton, MA 01536, USA

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BMC Microbiology 2009, 9:147  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-9-147

Published: 23 July 2009



Outbreaks of Type A tularemia due to Francisella tularensis tularensis are typically sporadic and unstable, greatly hindering identification of the determinants of perpetuation and human risk. Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts has experienced an outbreak of Type A tularemia which has persisted for 9 years. This unique situation has allowed us to conduct long-term eco-epidemiologic studies there. Our hypothesis is that the agent of Type A tularemia is perpetuated as a metapopulation, with many small isolated natural foci of transmission. During times of increased transmission, the foci would merge and a larger scale epizootic would occur, with greater likelihood that humans become exposed.


We sampled questing dog ticks from two natural foci on the island and tested them for tularemia DNA. We determined whether the force of transmission differed between the two foci. In addition, we examined the population structure of F. tularensis from ticks by variable number tandem repeat (VNTR) analysis, which allowed estimates of diversity, linkage disequilibrium, and eBURST analysis.


The prevalence of tularemia DNA in ticks from our two field sites was markedly different: one site was stable over the course of the study yielding as many as 5.6% positive ticks. In contrast, infected ticks from the comparison site markedly increased in prevalence, from 0.4% in 2003 to 3.9% in 2006. Using 4 VNTR loci, we documented 75 different haplotypes (diversity = 0.91). eBURST analysis indicates that the stable site was essentially clonal, but the comparison site contained multiple unrelated lineages. The general bacterial population is evolving clonally (multilocus disequilibrium) and the bacteria in the two sites are reproductively isolated.


Even within an isolated island, tularemia natural foci that are no more than 15 km apart are uniquely segregated. One of our sites has stable transmission and the other is emergent. The population structure at the stable site is that of a clonal complex of circulating bacteria, whereas the emerging focus is likely to be derived from multiple founders. We conclude that the agent of tularemia may perpetuate in small stable natural foci and that new foci emerge as a result of spillover from such stable sites.