The Pirbright Institute publication directory contains details of selected publications written by our researchers.

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Pascall D J, Nomikou K, Breard E, Zientara S, Filipe A D S, Hoffmann B, Jacquot M, Singer J B, De Clercq K, Botner A, Sailleau C, Viarouge C, Batten C, Puggioni G, Ligios C, Savini G, van Rijn P A, Mertens P P C, Biek R, Palmarini M (2020)

Frozen evolution of an RNA virus suggests accidental release as a potential cause of arbovirus re-emergence

PLoS Biology 18 (4), e3000673


The mechanisms underlying virus emergence are rarely well understood, making the appearance of outbreaks largely unpredictable. Bluetongue virus serotype 8 (BTV-8), an arthropod-borne virus of ruminants, emerged in livestock in northern Europe in 2006, spreading to most European countries by 2009 and causing losses of billions of euros. Although the outbreak was successfully controlled through vaccination by early 2010, puzzlingly, a closely related BTV-8 strain re-emerged in France in 2015, triggering a second outbreak that is still ongoing. The origin of this virus and the mechanisms underlying its re-emergence are unknown. Here, we performed phylogenetic analyses of 164 whole BTV-8 genomes sampled throughout the two outbreaks. We demonstrate consistent clock-like virus evolution during both epizootics but found negligible evolutionary change between them. We estimate that the ancestor of the second outbreak dates from the height of the first outbreak in 2008. This implies that the virus had not been replicating for multiple years prior to its re-emergence in 2015. Given the absence of any known natural mechanism that could explain BTV-8 persistence over this long period without replication, we hypothesise that the second outbreak could have been initiated by accidental exposure of livestock to frozen material contaminated with virus from approximately 2008. Our work highlights new targets for pathogen surveillance programmes in livestock and illustrates the power of genomic epidemiology to identify pathways of infectious disease emergence.


The virus-encoded microRNAs (miRNAs) have been demonstrated to have important regulatory roles in herpesvirus biology, including virus replication, latency, pathogenesis and/or tumorigenesis. As an emerging efficient tool for gene editing, the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat (CRISPR)/Cas9 system has been successfully applied in manipulating the genomes of large DNA viruses. Herein, utilizing the CRISPR/Cas9 system with a double-guide RNAs transfection/virus infection strategy, we have established a new platform for mutagenesis of viral miRNAs encoded by the Marek's disease virus serotype 1 (MDV-1), an oncogenic alphaherpesvirus that can induce rapid-onset T-cell lymphomas in chickens. A series of miRNA-knocked out (miR-KO) mutants with deletions of the Meq- or the mid-clustered miRNAs, namely RB-1B∆Meq-miRs, RB-1B∆M9-M2, RB-1B∆M4, RB-1B∆M9 and RB-1B∆M11, were generated from vvMDV strain RB-1B virus. Interestingly, mutagenesis of the targeted miRNAs showed changes in the in vitro virus growth kinetics, which is consistent with that of the in vivo proliferation curves of our previously reported GX0101 mutants produced by the bacterial artificial chromosome (BAC) clone and Rec E/T homologous recombination techniques. Our data demonstrate that the CRISPR/Cas9-based gene editing is a simple, efficient and relatively nondisruptive approach for manipulating the small non-coding genes from the genome of herpesvirus and will undoubtedly contribute significantly to the future progress in herpesvirus biology.


When rinderpest virus (RPV) was declared eradicated in 2011, the only remaining samples of this once much-feared livestock virus were those held in various laboratories. In order to allow the destruction of our institute's stocks of RPV while maintaining the ability to recover the various viruses if ever required, we have determined the full genome sequence of all our distinct samples of RPV, including 51 wild type viruses and examples of three different types of vaccine strain. Examination of the sequences of these virus isolates has shown that the African isolates form a single disparate clade, rather than two separate clades, which is more in accord with the known history of the virus in Africa. We have also identified two groups of goat-passaged viruses which have acquired an extra 6 bases in the long untranslated region between the M and F protein coding sequences, and shown that, for more than half the genomes sequenced, translation of the F protein requires translational frameshift or non-standard translation initiation. Curiously, the clade containing the lapinised vaccine viruses that were developed originally in Korea appears to be more similar to the known African viruses than to any other Asian viruses.


Real-time PCR (rPCR) is a widely accepted diagnostic tool for the detection and quantification of nucleic acid targets. In order for these assays to achieve high sensitivity and specificity, primer and probe-template complementarity is essential; however, mismatches are often unavoidable and can result in false-negative results and errors in quantifying target sequences. Primer and probe sequences therefore require continual evaluation to ensure they remain fit for purpose. This paper describes the development of a linear model and associated computational tool (GoPrime) designed to predict the performance of rPCR primers and probes across multiple sequence data. Empirical data were generated using DNA oligonucleotides (n = 90) that systematically introduced variation in the primer and probe target regions of a diagnostic assay routinely used to detect foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV); an animal virus that exhibits a high degree of sequence variability. These assays revealed consistent impacts of patterns of substitutions in primer and probe-sites on rPCR cycle threshold (CT) and limit of detection (LOD). These data were used to populate GoPrime, which was subsequently used to predict rPCR results for DNA templates (n = 7) representing the natural sequence variability within FMDV. GoPrime was also applicable to other areas of the FMDV genome, with predictions for the likely targets of a FMDV-typing assay consistent with published experimental data. Although further work is required to improve these tools, including assessing the impact of primer-template mismatches in the reverse transcription step and the broader impact of mismatches for other assays, these data support the use of mathematical models for rapidly predicting the performance of rPCR primers and probes in silico.

Hicks H M, Wadsworth J, Azhar M, Afzal M, Manzoor S, Abubakar M, Khan E-u-H, King D P, Knowles N J (2020)

Genome sequences of foot-and-mouth disease virus O/ME-SA/Ind-2001e strains isolated in Pakistan

Microbiology Resource Announcements 9 (18), e00165-20


The genome sequences of two foot-and-mouth disease type O viruses isolated from outbreaks of disease in cattle in Pakistan in 2019 are described. They were identified as belonging to serotype O, Middle East-South Asia topotype, Ind-2001 lineage, and e sublineage and represent the first identification of this lineage in Pakistan.


Here, we report the coding-complete genome sequence of African swine fever (ASF) virus strain Liv13/33, isolated from experimentally infected pigs and Ornithodoros moubata ticks. The 11 sequences that we obtained harbored no notable differences to each other, and all of them were closely related to the genome sequence of the Mkuzi 1979 strain of genotype I.


The Birnaviridae family, responsible for major economic losses to poultry and aquaculture, are non-enveloped viruses with a segmented double-stranded (ds)RNA genome that replicate in discrete cytoplasmic virus factories (VFs). Reassortment is common, however, the underlying mechanism remains unknown given that VFs may act as a barrier to genome mixing. In order to provide new information on VF trafficking during dsRNA virus co-infection, we rescued two recombinant infectious bursal disease viruses (IBDVs) of strain PBG98 containing either a split GFP11- or Tetracysteine (TC)- tag fused to the VP1 polymerase (PBG98-VP1-GFP11 and PBG98-VP1-TC). DF-1 cells transfected with GFP1-10 prior to PBG98-VP1-GFP11 infection, or stained with ReAsH following PBG98-VP1-TC infection, had green or red foci in the cytoplasm respectively that co-localised with VP3 and dsRNA, consistent with VFs. The average number of VFs decreased from a mean of 60 to 5 per cell between 10 and 24 hours post infection (hpi) (p<0.0001), while the average area increased from 1.24 μm(2) to 45.01μm(2) (p<0.0001), and live cell imaging revealed that the VFs were highly dynamic structures that coalesced in the cytoplasm. Small VFs moved faster than large (average 0.57μm/s at 16 hpi compared to 0.22 μm/s at 22 hpi), and VF coalescence was dependent on an intact microtubule network and actin cytoskeleton. During co-infection with PBG98-VP1-GFP11 and PBG98-VP1-TC viruses, discrete VFs initially formed from each input virus that subsequently coalesced 10-16 hpi, and we speculate that Birnaviridae reassortment requires VF coalescence.

IMPORTANCE Reassortment is common in viruses with segmented double stranded (ds)RNA genomes. However, these viruses typically replicate within discrete cytoplasmic virus factories (VFs) that may represent a barrier to genome mixing. We generated the first replication competent tagged reporter birnaviruses, infectious bursal disease viruses (IBDVs) containing a split GFP11 or tetracysteine (TC) tag and used the viruses to track the location and movement of IBDV VFs, in order to better understand the intracellular dynamics of VFs during a co-infection. Discrete VFs initially formed from each virus that subsequently coalesced from 10 hours pi. We hypothesise that VF coalescence is required for the reassortment of the Birnaviridae. This study provides new information that adds to our understanding of dsRNA virus VF trafficking.


Infectious diseases are typically studied in isolation, but in real life people often encounter multiple infections simultaneously. Here we investigate how the innate immune response to the fatal fungus Cryptococcus neoformans is influenced by viral coinfection. Whilst virally-infected macrophages retain a normal capacity to engulf and kill Cryptococci, they demonstrate a dramatically enhanced propensity to expel them through vomocytosis. Activation of vomocytosis is driven by type-I interferons, generic ‘antiviral’ molecules, which signal back to the infected macrophage, triggering expulsion of the fungus. We propose that this hitherto unobserved phenomenon represents a ‘reprioritisation’ pathway for innate immune cells, by which they can alter the frequency with which they expel one pathogen depending on the level of threat from a secondary infection.            

Yilmaz A, Turan N, Bayraktar E, Tali H E, Aydin O, Umar S, Cakan B, Sadeyen J-R, Baigent S, Iqbal M, Nair V, Yilmaz H (2020)

Molecular characterization and phylogenetic analysis of Marek’s disease virus in Turkish layer chickens

British Poultry Science Early view


1. There is no current data about the genotypes of Marek's disease virus (MDV) in Turkish poultry flocks, hence, this study was performed to analyse CVI988/Rispens, turkey herpesvirus (HVT) vaccine viruses and MDV field viruses as well as to perform phylogenetic analysis of MDV in Turkish layer chickens.2. In 2017 and 2018, a total of 602 spleen samples from 49 layer flocks were collected from the Marmara, West Black sea and Aegean regions. DNA was extracted from the spleen samples and the samples were analysed by real-time PCR probe assay to detect CVI988/Rispens and HVT vaccine viruses and MDV field strains. Samples found positive for MDV by real-time PCR were subjected to PCR using the Meq gene primers for phylogenetic analysis.3. Amongst 49 flocks, virulent MDV was detected in nine flocks. CVI988/Rispens and HVT vaccine strains were detected in 47 flocks and HVT in all 49 flocks. Splenomegaly, hepatomegaly and tumours in the oviduct were observed in chickens of affected flocks. Virulent MDV was detected in 120 out of 602 spleen samples. Sequencing and phylogenetic analyses showed that MDVs detected in this study were closely related to MDV strains from Italy, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, India and China but showed diversity with MDV strains from Egypt and Hungary. Multiple sequence analysis of the Meq protein revealed several point mutations in deduced amino acid sequences. Interestingly, CVI988/Rispens vaccine virus from China (AF493555) showed mutations at position 66 (G66R) and 71 (S66A) along with two other vaccine strains from China (GU354326.1) and Russia (EU032468.1), in comparison with the other vaccine strain CVI988/Rispens (DQ534538). The molecular analyses of the Meq gene suggested that Turkish field strains of MDV are in the class of virulent or very virulent pathotypes.4. The results have shown that MDV still affects poultry health, and the phylogenetic and amino acid variation data obtained will help in vaccination and control strategies.

Xu X, Yang J, Harvey-Samuel T, Huang Y, Asad M, Chen W, He W, Yang G, Alphey L, You M (2020)

Identification and characterization of the vasa gene in the diamondback moth, Plutella xylostella

Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology 122, 103371


Vasa is an ATP-dependent RNA helicase, participating in multiple biological processes. It has been widely used as a germ cell marker and its promoter has become a key component of several genetic pest control systems. Here we present the vasa gene structure and its promoter activity in Plutella xylostella, one of the most destructive pests of cruciferous crops. Full length Pxvasa cDNA sequences were obtained, revealing 14 exons and at least 30 alternatively spliced transcripts. Inferred amino acid sequences showed nine conserved DEAD-box family protein motifs with partial exclusion from some isoforms. Real-time quantitative PCR indicated the up-regulation of Pxvasa in both female and male adults compared with other developmental stages, and the expression levels of Pxvasa were found to be much higher in adult gonads, especially ovaries, than in other tissues. The putative promoter region of Pxvasa was sequenced and several ecdysone-induced transcription factor (TF) binding sites were predicted in silico. To further analyze the promoter region, two upstream regulatory fragments of different lengths were tested as putative promoters in transient cell and embryo expression assays, one of which was subsequently utilized to drive Cas9 expression in vivo. A transgenic line was recovered and the expression patterns of Cas9 and native Pxvasa were profiled in adult tissues and eggs with RT-PCR. This work provides the foundation for further studies on the gene functions of Pxvasa as well as the potential application of its promoter in genetic manipulation of P. xylostella.


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