Bubonic plague is an often fulminant systemic zoonosis, caused by Yersinia pestis. Conventional microbiology, bacterial population genetics, and genome sequence data, all suggest that Y pestis is a recently evolved clone of the enteric pathogen Yersinia pseudotuberculosis. The genetic basis of this organism's rapid adaptation to its insect vector (the flea) with transmission between mammalian hosts by novel subcutaneous and pneumonic routes of infection is becoming clearer. This transition provides a paradigm for the way in which new pathogens could emerge. Plague in humans is controlled by suppression of rodent reservoir hosts and their fleas and by early detection and treatment of cases of disease. Detection systems for plague in non-endemic regions might now be needed because of a bioterrorism threat. Rapid diagnostic tests are available and a subunit vaccine is in clinical trials.