Nidovirus-Associated Proliferative Pneumonia in the Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis)

J Virol. 2017 Oct 13;91(21):e00718-17. doi: 10.1128/JVI.00718-17. Print 2017 Nov 1.


In 2014 we observed a noticeable increase in the number of sudden deaths among green tree pythons (Morelia viridis). Pathological examination revealed the accumulation of mucoid material within the airways and lungs in association with enlargement of the entire lung. We performed a full necropsy and histological examination on 12 affected green tree pythons from 7 different breeders to characterize the pathogenesis of this mucinous pneumonia. By histology we could show a marked hyperplasia of the airway epithelium and of faveolar type II pneumocytes. Since routine microbiological tests failed to identify a causative agent, we studied lung tissue samples from a few diseased snakes by next-generation sequencing (NGS). From the NGS data we could assemble a piece of RNA genome whose sequence was <85% identical to that of nidoviruses previously identified in ball pythons and Indian pythons. We then employed reverse transcription-PCR to demonstrate the presence of the novel nidovirus in all diseased snakes. To attempt virus isolation, we established primary cultures of Morelia viridis liver and brain cells, which we inoculated with homogenates of lung tissue from infected individuals. Ultrastructural examination of concentrated cell culture supernatants showed the presence of nidovirus particles, and subsequent NGS analysis yielded the full genome of the novel virus Morelia viridis nidovirus (MVNV). We then generated an antibody against MVNV nucleoprotein, which we used alongside RNA in situ hybridization to demonstrate viral antigen and RNA in the affected lungs. This suggests that in natural infection MVNV damages the respiratory tract epithelium, which then results in epithelial hyperplasia, most likely as an exaggerated regenerative attempt in association with increased epithelial turnover.IMPORTANCE Novel nidoviruses associated with severe respiratory disease were fairly recently identified in ball pythons and Indian pythons. Herein we report on the isolation and identification of a further nidovirus from green tree pythons (Morelia viridis) with fatal pneumonia. We thoroughly characterized the pathological changes in the infected individuals and show that nidovirus infection is associated with marked epithelial proliferation in the respiratory tract. We speculate that this and the associated excess mucus production can lead to the animals' death by inhibiting normal gas exchange in the lungs. The virus was predominantly detected in the respiratory tract, which renders transmission via the respiratory route likely. Nidoviruses cause sudden outbreaks with high rates of mortality in breeding collections, and most affected snakes die without prior clinical signs. These findings, together with those of other groups, indicate that nidoviruses are a likely cause of severe pneumonia in pythons.

Keywords: Morelia viridis; NGS; epithelial hyperplasia; green tree python; nidovirus; pathogenesis; proliferative pneumonia; type II pneumocyte hyperplasia.