PloS one

Gene Diversification of an Emerging Pathogen: A Decade of Mutation in a Novel Fish Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia (VHS) Substrain since Its First Appearance in the Laurentian Great Lakes.

PMID 26313549


Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia virus (VHSv) is an RNA rhabdovirus, which causes one of the world's most serious fish diseases, infecting >80 freshwater and marine species across the Northern Hemisphere. A new, novel, and especially virulent substrain-VHSv-IVb-first appeared in the Laurentian Great Lakes about a decade ago, resulting in massive fish kills. It rapidly spread and has genetically diversified. This study analyzes temporal and spatial mutational patterns of VHSv-IVb across the Great Lakes for the novel non-virion (Nv) gene that is unique to this group of novirhabdoviruses, in relation to its glycoprotein (G), phosphoprotein (P), and matrix (M) genes. Results show that the Nv-gene has been evolving the fastest (k = 2.0 x 10-3 substitutions/site/year), with the G-gene at ~1/7 that rate (k = 2.8 x 10-4). Most (all but one) of the 12 unique Nv- haplotypes identified encode different amino acids, totaling 26 changes. Among the 12 corresponding G-gene haplotypes, seven vary in amino acids with eight total changes. The P- and M- genes are more evolutionarily conserved, evolving at just ~1/15 (k = 1.2 x 10-4) of the Nv-gene's rate. The 12 isolates contained four P-gene haplotypes with two amino acid changes, and six M-gene haplotypes with three amino acid differences. Patterns of evolutionary changes coincided among the genes for some of the isolates, but appeared independent in others. New viral variants were discovered following the large 2006 outbreak; such differentiation may have been in response to fish populations developing resistance, meriting further investigation. Two 2012 variants were isolated by us from central Lake Erie fish that lacked classic VHSv symptoms, having genetically distinctive Nv-, G-, and M-gene sequences (with one of them also differing in its P-gene); they differ from each other by a G-gene amino acid change and also differ from all other isolates by a shared Nv-gene amino acid change. Such rapid evolutionary differentiation may allow new viral variants to evade fish host recognition and immune responses, facilitating long-time persistence along with expansion to new geographic areas.