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J Virol. 2008 Nov;82(21):10465-76. doi: 10.1128/JVI.00825-08. Epub 2008 Aug 20.

Hidden virulence determinants in a viral quasispecies in vivo.

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Centro de Biología Molecular Severo Ochoa, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Cantoblanco, Madrid 28049, Spain.


The characterization of virulence determinants of pathogenic agents is of utmost relevance for the design of disease control strategies. So far, two classes of virulence determinants have been characterized for viral populations: those imprinted in the nucleotide sequence of some specific genomic regions and those that depend on the complexity of the viral population as such. Here we provide evidence of a virulence determinant that depends neither on a genomic sequence nor on detectable differences in population complexity. Foot-and-mouth disease virus is lethal for C57BL/6 mice showing the highest viral load in pancreas. Virus isolated from pancreas after one passage in mice showed an attenuated phenotype, with no lethality even at the highest dose tested. By contrast, virus from sera of the same mice displayed a virulence similar to that of the parental wild-type clone and virus isolated from spleen displayed an intermediate phenotype. However, viral populations from pancreas, spleen, and serum showed indistinguishable consensus genomic nucleotide sequences and mutant spectrum complexities, as quantified according to the mutation frequencies of both entire genomic nucleotide sequences of biological clones. The results show that the populations with differing virulences cannot be distinguished either by the consensus sequence or by the average complexity of the mutant spectrum. Differential harvesting of virus generated by cell transfection of RNA from serum and pancreas failed to reveal genetic differences between subpopulations endowed with differing virulences. In addition to providing evidence of hidden virulence determinants, this study underlines the capacity of a clone of an RNA virus to rapidly diversify phenotypically in vivo.

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