Background: Birnaviruses form a distinct family of double-stranded RNA viruses infecting animals as different as vertebrates, mollusks, insects and rotifers. With such a wide host range, they constitute a good model for studying the adaptation to the host. Additionally, several lines of evidence link birnaviruses to positive strand RNA viruses and suggest that phylogenetic analyses may provide clues about transition.
Results: We characterized the genome of a birnavirus from the rotifer Branchionus plicalitis. We used X-ray structures of RNA-dependent RNA polymerases and capsid proteins to obtain multiple structure alignments that allowed us to obtain reliable multiple sequence alignments and we employed "advanced" phylogenetic methods to study the evolutionary relationships between some positive strand and double-stranded RNA viruses. We showed that the rotifer birnavirus genome exhibited an organization remarkably similar to other birnaviruses. As this host was phylogenetically very distant from the other known species targeted by birnaviruses, we revisited the evolutionary pathways within the Birnaviridae family using phylogenetic reconstruction methods. We also applied a number of phylogenetic approaches based on structurally conserved domains/regions of the capsid and RNA-dependent RNA polymerase proteins to study the evolutionary relationships between birnaviruses, other double-stranded RNA viruses and positive strand RNA viruses.
Conclusions: We show that there is a good correlation between the phylogeny of the birnaviruses and that of their hosts at the phylum level using the RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (genomic segment B) on the one hand and a concatenation of the capsid protein, protease and ribonucleoprotein (genomic segment A) on the other hand. This correlation tends to vanish within phyla. The use of advanced phylogenetic methods and robust structure-based multiple sequence alignments allowed us to obtain a more accurate picture (in terms of probability of the tree topologies) of the evolutionary affinities between double-stranded RNA and positive strand RNA viruses. In particular, we were able to show that there exists a good statistical support for the claims that dsRNA viruses are not monophyletic and that viruses with permuted RdRps belong to a common evolution lineage as previously proposed by other groups. We also propose a tree topology with a good statistical support describing the evolutionary relationships between the Picornaviridae, Caliciviridae, Flaviviridae families and a group including the Alphatetraviridae, Nodaviridae, Permutotretraviridae, Birnaviridae, and Cystoviridae families.