Traces of history conserved over 600 years in the geographic distribution of genetic variants of an RNA virus: Bovine viral diarrhea virus in Switzerland

PLoS One. 2018 Dec 5;13(12):e0207604. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0207604. eCollection 2018.


The first records of smallpox and rabies date back thousands of years and foot-and-mouth disease in cattle was described in the 16th century. These diseases stood out by their distinct signs, dramatic way of transmission from rabid dogs to humans, and sudden appearance in cattle herds. By contrast, infectious diseases that show variable signs and affect few individuals were identified only much later. Bovine viral diarrhea (BVD), endemic in cattle worldwide, was first described in 1946, together with the eponymous RNA virus as its cause. There is general agreement that BVD was not newly emerging at that time, but its history remains unknown. A search for associations between the nucleotide sequences of over 7,000 BVD viral strains obtained during a national campaign to eradicate BVD and features common to the hosts of these strains enabled us to trace back in time the presence of BVD in the Swiss cattle population. We found that animals of the two major traditional cattle breeds, Fleckvieh and Swiss Brown, were infected with strains of only four different subgenotypes of BVDV-1. The history of these cattle breeds and the events that determined the current distribution of the two populations are well documented. Specifically, Fleckvieh originates from the Bernese and Swiss Brown from the central Alps. The spread to their current geographic distribution was determined by historic events during a major expansion of the Swiss Confederation during the 15th and 16th centuries. The association of the two cattle populations with different BVD viral subgenotypes may have been preserved by a lack of cattle imports, trade barriers within the country, and unique virus-host interactions. The congruent traces of history in the distribution of the two cattle breeds and distinct viral subgenotypes suggests that BVD may have been endemic in Switzerland for at least 600 years.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Base Sequence / genetics
  • Bovine Virus Diarrhea-Mucosal Disease / genetics*
  • Bovine Virus Diarrhea-Mucosal Disease / history*
  • Cattle
  • Diarrhea / veterinary
  • Diarrhea / virology
  • Diarrhea Viruses, Bovine Viral / genetics*
  • Diarrhea Viruses, Bovine Viral / pathogenicity
  • Genetic Variation / genetics
  • History, 15th Century
  • History, 16th Century
  • History, Medieval
  • Phylogeography
  • RNA Viruses / genetics
  • Switzerland

Grants and funding

This research was funded by the Swiss National Science Fund, Grant 109597 to E.P. and M.S.; The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.