HISS-tory-making virus

HISS-tory-making virus

UF researcher helps uncover new snake virus

By Sarah Carey

James Wellehan, Ph.D., D.V.M., holds a carpet python. A new University of Florida study identifies a previously unrecognized virus was responsible for a deadly outbreak that affected a group of privately owned snakes in Australia in 2008./Photo by Maria Belen Farias.

A UF researcher and colleagues in Australia and Germany have discovered what might be a deadly new snake virus.

Dubbed the “Sunshine virus” because of its discovery in Australia’s Sunshine Coast region, the organism causes nervous system and respiratory disease and is the first of its kind to be identified.

The discovery, described in the journal Infection, Genetics and Evolution, might help scientists better understand the biology and origin of an important group of disease-causing organisms and inform efforts to prevent future outbreaks.

“While medicine has traditionally waited for big outbreaks to cause large numbers of deaths and then dealt with new diseases reactively, an understanding of what viruses are out there and how they can be expected to behave allows us to be proactive, being aware of and monitoring agents of potential concern,” said co-author James Wellehan, D.V.M., Ph.D., an assistant professor of zoological medicine at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine.

The quest to identify the new virus started as an investigation of the cause of a 2008 disease outbreak in a privately owned Australian collection of 70 pythons.

“We screened more than 450 samples, including swabs, tissues and blood for snake viruses,” said lead author Timothy Hyndman, D.V.M., of Murdoch University in Australia. “It was very frustrating. After two-and-a-half years, we finally isolated something. A year later, we figured out what it was.”

The researchers identified several genetic sequences with limited similarity to known viruses in large genetic databases. Statistical analyses showed the Sunshine virus belonged to a family called paramyxovirus. Measles, mumps and canine distemper are all in the family. But unlike other snake and lizard viruses, the new virus did not fit into a subgroup called ferlavirus.

“This is the first non-ferlavirus paramyxovirus to be discovered from a reptile,” Hyndman said. “In the previous 40 years, reptilian paramyxoviruses were all very similar until this one was discovered.”