Feline immunodeficiency virus cross-species transmission: Implications for emergence of new lentiviral infections

Owing to a complex history of host-parasite coevolution, lentiviruses exhibit a high degree of species specificity. Given the well-documented viral archeology of HIV emergence following human exposures to SIV, understanding processes that promote successful cross-species lentiviral transmissions is highly relevant. We have previously reported natural cross-species transmission of a subtype of feline immunodeficiency virus, puma lentivirus A (PLVA), between bobcats (Lynx rufus) and mountain lions (Puma concolor) in a small number of animals in California and Florida. In this study we investigate host-specific selection pressures, within-host viral fitness, and inter- vs. intra-species transmission patterns among a larger collection of PLV isolates from free-ranging bobcats and mountain lions. Analysis of proviral and viral RNA levels demonstrates that PLVA fitness is severely restricted in mountain lions compared to bobcats. We document evidence of diversifying selection in three of six PLVA genomes from mountain lions, but did not detect selection among twenty PLVA isolates from bobcats. These findings support that PLVA is a bobcat-adapted virus, which is less fit in mountain lions and under intense selection pressure in the novel host. Ancestral reconstruction of transmission events reveals intraspecific PLVA transmission has occurred among panthers (Puma concolor coryi) in Florida following initial cross-species infection from bobcats. In contrast, interspecific transmission from bobcats to mountain lions predominates in California. These findings document outcomes of cross-species lentiviral transmission events among felids that compare to emergence of HIV from nonhuman primates. IMPORTANCE Cross-species transmission episodes can be singular, dead-end events or can result in viral replication and spread in the new species. The factors that determine which outcome will occur are complex, and the risk of new virus emergence is therefore difficult to predict. Here we use molecular techniques to evaluate transmission, fitness, and adaptation of puma lentivirus A (PLVA) between bobcats and mountain lions in two geographic regions. Our findings illustrate that mountain lion exposure to PLVA is relatively common, but does not routinely result in infections communicable in the new host. This is attributed to efficient species barriers that largely prevent lentiviral adaptation. However, the evolutionary capacity for lentiviruses to adapt to novel environments may ultimately overcome host restriction mechanisms over time and under certain ecological circumstances. This phenomenon provides a unique opportunity to examine cross-species transmission events leading to new lentiviral emergence.

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