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Host Genetics Plays Unexpected Role in Dance With Pathogen

A new study suggests that differences in the host's genetics can make a big difference in susceptibility bacterial infection. In a study in the February 2011 Infection and Immunity, Virginia L. Miller of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and her collaborators show that the virulence of a strain of Yersinia pestis, notable for causing bubonic plague, varies drastically among mice strains with different genetic backgrounds. These findings carry major implications for vaccine development, says Miller.

A number of earlier reports dating back 20 years had suggested that removing this bacterium's capsule--an envelope of a loose protein gel surrounding the bacterial cell -- had no effect on its virulence. Then, Miller and her collaborators performed the same experiment, with opposite results.

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