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Sequencing Brucella melitensis, an obscure candidate for biological warfare
By Birgit Reinert


Researchers have sequenced the genome of Brucella melitensis, a relatively obscure bacterium better known in the context of Malta fever, a highly contagious flu-like infection in humans. The researchers identified the locations and functions of various genes, including those related to the bacterium's virulence. The genome is expected to answer questions about how the organism causes disease, which is not exactly clear to the scientists, and to point the way to a human vaccine.

Sir David Bruce (1855-1931) isolated the bacterium of Malta fever in 1887.

Brucella melitensis is considered a potential agent for biological warfare by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention and rated 'B' on the list of potential bioterrorist weapons. Although brucellosis is rarely fatal for humans, it is highly contagious, difficult to treat, and spreads easily. So far, a vaccine has not yet been discovered to fight the disease in humans, and animal vaccines are pathogenic to humans.

The genome of the bacterium contains over 3 million base pairs of DNA. The researchers found 3,197 genes distributed on two chromosomes. By comparing the genome to that of other organisms, they assigned functions to 78 percent of the genes. Vito DelVecchio, of the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, led the research.

"The complete genomic sequence of B. melitensis has provided significant information on the basic nature of the organism including its core metabolism, secretion, adhesion, transporters, and cell-wall features," the researchers write in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Sir David Bruce, a British army surgeon, discovered the organism in 1887 as the causative agent of Malta fever. It now bears his name coupled with melitensis, which is Latin for Malta. The disease, which primarily infects sheep and goats, is still reported in Mediterranean regions and parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

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DelVecchio, V.G. et al. The genome sequence of the facultative intracellular pathogen Brucella melitensis. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 99, 443-448 (January 8, 2002). Published online December 26, 2001.

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