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Open Access Research

Detection of myxoma viruses encoding a defective M135R gene from clinical cases of myxomatosis; possible implications for the role of the M135R protein as a virulence factor

Graham J Belsham1*, Charlotta Polacek1, Solvej Ø Breum2, Lars E Larsen2 and Anette Bøtner1

Author Affiliations

1 National Veterinary Institute, Technical University of Denmark, Lindholm, 4771 Kalvehave, Denmark

2 National Veterinary Institute, Technical University of Denmark, Bülowsvej 27, 1790 Copenhagen, Denmark

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Virology Journal 2010, 7:7  doi:10.1186/1743-422X-7-7

Published: 16 January 2010

Abstract

Background

Myxoma virus is a member of the Poxviridae and causes disease in European rabbits. Laboratory confirmation of the clinical disease, which occurs in the autumn of most years in Denmark, has been achieved previously using antigen ELISA and electron microscopy.

Results

An unusually large number of clinically suspected cases of myxomatosis were observed in Denmark during 2007. Myxoma virus DNA was detected, using a new real time PCR assay which targets the M029L gene, in over 70% of the clinical samples submitted for laboratory confirmation. Unexpectedly, further analysis revealed that a high proportion of these viral DNA preparations contained a frame-shift mutation within the M135R gene that has previously been identified as a virulence factor. This frame-shift mutation results in expression of a greatly truncated product. The same frame-shift mutation has also been found recently within an avirulent strain of myxoma virus (6918). However, three other frame-shift mutations found in this strain (in the genes M009L, M036L and M148R) were not shared with the Danish viruses but a single nucleotide deletion in the M138R/M139R intergenic region was a common feature.

Conclusions

It appears that expression of the full-length myxoma virus M135R protein is not required for virulence in rabbits. Hence, the frame-shift mutation in the M135R gene in the nonpathogenic 6918 virus strain is not sufficient to explain the attenuation of this myxoma virus but one/some of the other frame-shift mutations alone or in conjunction with one/some of the thirty two amino acid substitutions must also contribute. The real time PCR assay for myxoma virus is a useful diagnostic tool for laboratory confirmation of suspected cases of myxomatosis.