Pervasive differential splicing in Marek’s disease virus can discriminate CVI-988 vaccine strain from RB-1B very virulent strain in chicken embryonic fibroblasts

Marek’s disease is a major scourge challenging poultry health worldwide. It is caused by the highly contagious Marek’s disease virus (MDV), an alphaherpesvirus. Here, we showed that, similar to other members of its Herpesviridae family, MDV also presents a complex landscape of splicing events, most of which are uncharacterised and/or not annotated. Quite strikingly, and although the biological relevance of this fact is unknown, we found that a number of viral splicing isoforms are strain-specific, despite the close sequence similarity of the strains considered: very virulent RB-1B and vaccine CVI-988. We validated our findings by devising an assay that discriminated infections caused by the two strains in chicken embryonic fibroblasts on the basis of the presence of some RNA species. To our knowledge, this study is the first to accomplish such a result, emphasizing how relevant a comprehensive picture of the viral transcriptome is to fully understand viral pathogenesis.

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