What a Difference a Gene Makes : Identification of Virulence Factors of Cowpox Virus

Research output: Journal Publications and Reviews (RGC: 21, 22, 62)21_Publication in refereed journalpeer-review

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  • Aiste Tamošiunaite
  • Saskia Weber
  • Timo Schippers
  • Annika Franke
  • Zhiyong Xu
  • Maria Jenckel
  • Florian Pfaff
  • Donata Hoffmann
  • Maegan Newell
  • B. Karsten Tischer
  • Martin Beer


Original languageEnglish
Article numbere01625-19
Journal / PublicationJournal of Virology
Issue number2
Online published6 Jan 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2020
Externally publishedYes


Cowpox virus (CPXV) is a zoonotic orthopoxvirus (OPV) that causes spillover infections from its animal hosts to humans. In 2009, several human CPXV cases occurred through transmission from pet rats. An isolate from a diseased rat, RatPox09, exhibited significantly increased virulence in Wistar rats and caused high mortality compared to that caused by the mildly virulent laboratory strain Brighton Red (BR). The RatPox09 genome encodes four genes which are absent in the BR genome. We hypothesized that their gene products could be major factors influencing the high virulence of RatPox09. To address this hypothesis, we employed several BR-RatPox09 chimeric viruses. Using Red-mediated mutagenesis, we generated BR-based knock-in mutants with single or multiple insertions of the respective RatPox09 genes. High-throughput sequencing was used to verify the genomic integrity of all recombinant viruses, and transcriptomic analyses confirmed that the expression profiles of the genes that were adjacent to the modified ones were unaltered. While the in vitro growth kinetics were comparable to those of BR and RatPox09, we discovered that a knock-in BR mutant containing the four RatPox09-specific genes was as virulent as the RatPox09 isolate, causing death in over 75% of infected Wistar rats. Unexpectedly, the insertion of gCPXV0030 (g7tGP) alone into the BR genome resulted in significantly higher clinical scores and lower survival rates matching the rate for rats infected with RatPox09. The insertion of gCPXV0284, encoding the BTB (broad-complex, tramtrack, and bric-à-brac) domain protein D7L, also increased the virulence of BR, while the other two open reading frames failed to rescue virulence independently. In summary, our results confirmed our hypothesis that a relatively small set of four genes can contribute significantly to CPXV virulence in the natural rat animal model. IMPORTANCE: With the cessation of vaccination against smallpox and its assumed cross-protectivity against other OPV infections, waning immunity could open up new niches for related poxviruses. Therefore, the identification of virulence mechanisms in CPXV is of general interest. Here, we aimed to identify virulence markers in an experimental rodent CPXV infection model using bacterial artificial chromosome (BAC)-based virus recombineering. We focused our work on the recent zoonotic CPXV isolate RatPox09, which is highly pathogenic in Wistar rats, unlike the avirulent BR reference strain. In several animal studies, we were able to identify a novel set of CPXV virulence genes. Two of the identified virulence genes, encoding a putative BTB/POZ protein (CPXVD7L) and a B22R-family protein (CPXV7tGP), respectively, have not yet been described to be involved in CPXV virulence. Our results also show that single genes can significantly affect virulence, thus facilitating adaptation to other hosts.

Research Area(s)

  • Cowpox virus, Pathogenesis, Virulence factors, Zoonotic infections

Citation Format(s)

What a Difference a Gene Makes : Identification of Virulence Factors of Cowpox Virus. / Tamošiunaite, Aiste; Weber, Saskia; Schippers, Timo; Franke, Annika; Xu, Zhiyong; Jenckel, Maria; Pfaff, Florian; Hoffmann, Donata; Newell, Maegan; Karsten Tischer, B.; Beer, Martin; Osterrieder, Nikolaus.

In: Journal of Virology, Vol. 94, No. 2, e01625-19, 01.2020.

Research output: Journal Publications and Reviews (RGC: 21, 22, 62)21_Publication in refereed journalpeer-review