In a pattern repeated across a range of ecological niches, arenaviruses have evolved a compact four-gene genome to orchestrate a complex life cycle in a narrow range of susceptible hosts. A number of mammalian arenaviruses cross-infect humans, often causing a life-threatening viral hemorrhagic fever. Among this group of geographically bound zoonoses, Lassa virus has evolved a unique niche that leads to significant and sustained human morbidity and mortality. As a biosafety level 4 pathogen, direct study of the pathogenesis of Lassa virus is limited by the sparse availability, high operating costs, and technical restrictions of the high-level biocontainment laboratories required for safe experimentation. In this chapter, we introduce the relationship between genome structure and the life cycle of Lassa virus and outline reverse genetic approaches used to probe and describe functional elements of the Lassa virus genome. We then review the tools used to obtain viral genomic sequences used for phylogeny and molecular diagnostics, before shifting to a population perspective to assess the contributions of phylogenetic analysis in understanding the evolution and ecology of Lassa virus in West Africa. We finally consider the future outlook and clinical applications for genetic study of Lassa virus.
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