Myxomatosis in Australia and Europe: a model for emerging infectious diseases

Antiviral Res. 2012 Mar;93(3):387-415. doi: 10.1016/j.antiviral.2012.01.009. Epub 2012 Feb 8.

Abstract

Myxoma virus is a poxvirus naturally found in two American leporid (rabbit) species (Sylvilagus brasiliensis and Sylvilagus bachmani) in which it causes an innocuous localised cutaneous fibroma. However, in European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) the same virus causes the lethal disseminated disease myxomatosis. The introduction of myxoma virus into the European rabbit population in Australia in 1950 initiated the best known example of what happens when a novel pathogen jumps into a completely naïve new mammalian host species. The short generation time of the rabbit and their vast numbers in Australia meant evolution could be studied in real time. The carefully documented emergence of attenuated strains of virus that were more effectively transmitted by the mosquito vector and the subsequent selection of rabbits with genetic resistance to myxomatosis is the paradigm for pathogen virulence and host-pathogen coevolution. This natural experiment was repeated with the release of a separate strain of myxoma virus in France in 1952. The subsequent spread of the virus throughout Europe and its coevolution with the rabbit essentially paralleled what occurred in Australia. Detailed molecular studies on myxoma virus have dissected the role of virulence genes in the pathogenesis of myxomatosis and when combined with genomic data and reverse genetics should in future enable the understanding of the molecular evolution of the virus as it adapted to its new host. This review describes the natural history and evolution of myxoma virus together with the molecular biology and experimental pathogenesis studies that are informing our understanding of evolution of emerging diseases.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Australia
  • Biological Evolution
  • Communicable Diseases, Emerging / genetics
  • Communicable Diseases, Emerging / veterinary*
  • Communicable Diseases, Emerging / virology
  • Europe
  • Models, Biological
  • Myxoma virus / classification
  • Myxoma virus / genetics
  • Myxoma virus / isolation & purification*
  • Myxomatosis, Infectious / genetics
  • Myxomatosis, Infectious / virology*
  • Rabbits / genetics
  • Rabbits / virology