Bluetongue virus (BTV) is the prototype member of the Orbivirus genus in the family Reoviridae and is the aetiological agent of the arthropod transmitted disease bluetongue (BT) that affects both ruminant and camelid species. The disease is of significant global importance due to its economic impact and effect on animal welfare. Bluetongue virus, a dsRNA virus, evolves through a process of quasispecies evolution that is driven by genetic drift and shift as well as intragenic recombination. Quasispecies evolution coupled with founder effect and evolutionary selective pressures has over time led to the establishment of genetically distinct strains of the virus in different epidemiological systems throughout the world. Bluetongue virus field strains may differ substantially from each other with regards to their phenotypic properties (i.e. virulence and/or transmission potential). The intrinsic molecular determinants that influence the phenotype of BTV have not clearly been characterized. It is currently unclear what contribution each of the viral genome segments have in determining the phenotypic properties of the virus and it is also unknown how genetic variability in the individual viral genes and their functional domains relate to differences in phenotype. In order to understand how genetic variation in particular viral genes could potentially influence the phenotypic properties of the virus; a closer understanding of the BTV virion, its encoded proteins and the evolutionary mechanisms that shape the diversity of the virus is required. This review provides a synopsis of these issues and highlights some of the studies that have been conducted on BTV and the closely related African horse sickness virus (AHSV) that have contributed to ongoing attempts to identify the molecular determinants that influence the virus' phenotype. Different strategies that can be used to generate BTV mutants in vitro and methods through which the causality between particular genetic modifications and changes in phenotype may be determined are also described. Finally examples are highlighted where a clear understanding of the molecular determinants that influence the phenotype of the virus may have contributed to risk assessment and mitigation strategies during recent outbreaks of BT in Europe.
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