Long-Term Survival of Virulent Tularemia Pathogens outside a Host in Conditions That Mimic Natural Aquatic Environments

Igor Golovliov, Stina Bäckman, Malin Granberg, Emelie Salomonsson, Eva Lundmark, Jonas Näslund, Joseph D. Busch, Dawn Birdsell, Jason W. Sahl, David M. Wagner, Anders Johansson, Mats Forsman, Johanna Thelaus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Francisella tularensis, the causative agent of the zoonotic disease tularemia, can cause seasonal outbreaks of acute febrile illness in humans with disease peaks in late summer to autumn. Interestingly, its mechanisms for environmental persistence between outbreaks are poorly understood. One hypothesis is that F. tularensis forms biofilms in aquatic environments. We utilized two fully virulent wild-type strains: FSC200 (Francisella tularensis subsp. holarctica) and Schu S4 (Francisella tularensis subsp. tularensis) and three control strains, the attenuated live vaccine strain (LVS; F. tularensis subsp. holarctica), a Schu S4 DwbtI mutant that is documented to form biofilms, and the low-virulence strain U112 of the closely related species Francisella novicida. Strains were incubated in saline solution (0.9% NaCl) microcosms for 24 weeks at both 4°C and 20°C, whereupon viability and biofilm formation were measured. These temperatures were selected to approximate winter and summer temperatures of fresh water in Scandinavia, respectively. U112 and Schu S4 DwbtI formed biofilms, but F. tularensis strains FSC200 and Schu S4 and the LVS did not. All strains exhibited prolonged viability at 4°C compared to 20°C. U112 and FSC200 displayed remarkable long-term persistence at 4°C, with only 1- and 2-fold log reductions, respectively, of viable cells after 24weeks. Schu S4 exhibited lower survival, yielding no viable cells by week 20. At 24weeks, cells from FSC200, but not from Schu S4, were still fully virulent in mice. Taken together, these results demonstrate biofilm-independent, long-term survival of pathogenic F. tularensis subsp. holarctica in conditions that mimic overwinter survival in aquatic environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere02713-20
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalApplied and Environmental Microbiology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Mar 2021


  • Francisella tularensis
  • aquatic environment
  • biofilms
  • long-term persistence
  • tularemia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Food Science
  • Ecology
  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology


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