Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV) is a major threat to European swine production. The existence of extensive genetic variation in endemic strains and the presence of highly virulent strains in other geographic regions pose the threat of devastating epidemic outbreaks. Here we describe the current knowledge of genetic variation in European PRRSV isolates, the implications for PRRSV evolution, and the presence of multiple genetic lineages of Type 2 (North American genotype) isolates in Europe. In Type 1 (European genotype) PRRSV, three genetic subtypes are recognized and a fourth subtype appears to be present. Type 2 PRRSV was considered to be genetically homogenous in Europe due to a unique presence of an introduced vaccine strain, but independent introductions of virulent Type 2 field viruses are now evident. In Type 1 PRRSV, only subtype 1 (Lelystad virus-like) circulates in Central and Western Europe and globally. In Eastern Europe, all subtypes are present. The subtypes of Type 1 PRRSV also exhibit length differences in the nucleocapsid protein, ranging in size from 124 to 132 amino acids depending on subtype. This size heterogeneity is unparalleled in the nucleocapsid proteins of Type 2 PRRSV or other viruses. Surprisingly, it affects the C-terminus, otherwise thought to be under strong structural constraints. Finally, divergent subtypes of Type 1 PRRSV have produced high rates of false-negative RT-PCR results in diagnostic tests, and may also degrade the reliability of serodiagnostic assays using the nucleocapsid protein antigen. In summary, the extensive genetic diversity of Type 1 PRRSV is of relevance for understanding nucleocapsid protein structure/function relationships. Further, the extensive genetic diversity of Type 1 PRRSV in Europe, and the presence of diverse Type 2 PRRSV strains, together emphasize the importance of relevant validation of PRRSV diagnostics. More extensive and systematic molecular phylogeny studies are needed to fully understand PRRSV diversity in Europe, to provide swine producers with reliable diagnostics, and to better assess the potential consequences of endemic spread and exotic introductions.
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