The co-evolution of myxoma virus (MYXV) and the European rabbit occurred independently in Australia and Europe from different progenitor viruses. Although this is the canonical study of the evolution of virulence, whether the genomic and phenotypic outcomes of MYXV evolution in Europe mirror those observed in Australia is unknown. We addressed this question using viruses isolated in the United Kingdom early in the MYXV epizootic (1954–1955) and between 2008–2013. The later UK viruses fell into three distinct lineages indicative of a long period of separation and independent evolution. Although rates of evolutionary change were almost identical to those previously described for MYXV in Australia and strongly clock-like, genome evolution in the UK and Australia showed little convergence. The phenotypes of eight UK viruses from three lineages were characterized in laboratory rabbits and compared to the progenitor (release) Lausanne strain. Inferred virulence ranged from highly virulent (grade 1) to highly attenuated (grade 5). Two broad disease types were seen: cutaneous nodular myxomatosis characterized by multiple raised secondary cutaneous lesions, or an amyxomatous phenotype with few or no secondary lesions. A novel clinical outcome was acute death with pulmonary oedema and haemorrhage, often associated with bacteria in many tissues but an absence of inflammatory cells. Notably, reading frame disruptions in genes defined as essential for virulence in the progenitor Lausanne strain were compatible with the acquisition of high virulence. Combined, these data support a model of ongoing host-pathogen co-evolution in which multiple genetic pathways can produce successful outcomes in the field that involve both different virulence grades and disease phenotypes, with alterations in tissue tropism and disease mechanisms.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Molecular Biology