Virus genomes help to explain why a major livestock disease has re-emerged in Europe
Bluetongue virus (BTV) is a pathogen that infects sheep and cattle. Livestock diseases like bluetongue are devastating economic and health consequences, but their origins can be difficult to track.
New research shows that the recent re-emergence of BTV in France could have been anthropogenic, based on the virus' unusual genetic makeup. In the new study, led by researchers at the University of Glasgow (UK) with a consortium of European collaborators, the authors compared BTV genomes before and after it re-emerged in France in 2015. BTV first arrived in Europe in 2006 from unknown sources. It was controlled through mass vaccination by 2010, and no cases were reported until it re-emerged in 2015.
The genome analyses revealed that during both outbreaks, BTV accumulated novel mutations in a manner expected for a rapidly evolving virus. During the period in between, however, the researchers noted a curious lack of mutations, indicating that the virus was likely not circulating during this period. The genetic similarity between the original and re-emergent viruses suggests that the 2015 outbreak was caused by infectious material that somehow arose from the first outbreak.
Virus persistence over multiple years in the absence of genetic changes would upset our understanding of virus biology. A more plausible scenario, the authors argue, is that the virus resurfaced after being stored in frozen samples. And since artificial insemination and embryo transfer are widely used in the livestock industry, they say, this transmission mechanism should be evaluated by future work.
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