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Prairie Dogs Yield Bioterrorism Insight

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
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.

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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.

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