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Concept: Poxviridae


Smallpox holds a unique position in the history of medicine. It was the first disease for which a vaccine was developed and remains the only human disease eradicated by vaccination. Although there have been claims of smallpox in Egypt, India, and China dating back millennia [1-4], the timescale of emergence of the causative agent, variola virus (VARV), and how it evolved in the context of increasingly widespread immunization, have proven controversial [4-9]. In particular, some molecular-clock-based studies have suggested that key events in VARV evolution only occurred during the last two centuries [4-6] and hence in apparent conflict with anecdotal historical reports, although it is difficult to distinguish smallpox from other pustular rashes by description alone. To address these issues, we captured, sequenced, and reconstructed a draft genome of an ancient strain of VARV, sampled from a Lithuanian child mummy dating between 1643 and 1665 and close to the time of several documented European epidemics [1, 2, 10]. When compared to vaccinia virus, this archival strain contained the same pattern of gene degradation as 20(th) century VARVs, indicating that such loss of gene function had occurred before ca. 1650. Strikingly, the mummy sequence fell basal to all currently sequenced strains of VARV on phylogenetic trees. Molecular-clock analyses revealed a strong clock-like structure and that the timescale of smallpox evolution is more recent than often supposed, with the diversification of major viral lineages only occurring within the 18(th) and 19(th) centuries, concomitant with the development of modern vaccination.

Concepts: Infectious disease, Virus, Vaccine, Vaccination, Vaccinia, Poxviridae, Smallpox, Cowpox


Poxviruses are widespread pathogens, which display extremely different host ranges. Whereas some poxviruses, including variola virus, display narrow host ranges, others such as cowpox viruses naturally infect a wide range of mammals. The molecular bases for differences in host range are poorly understood but apparently depend on the successful manipulation of the host antiviral response. Some poxvirus genes have been shown to confer host tropism in experimental settings and are thus called host range factors. Identified host range genes include vaccinia virus K1L, K3L, E3L, B5R, C7L and SPI-1, cowpox virus CP77/CHOhr, ectromelia virus p28 and 022, and myxoma virus T2, T4, T5, 11L, 13L, 062R and 063R. These genes encode for ankyrin repeat-containing proteins, tumor necrosis factor receptor II homologs, apoptosis inhibitor T4-related proteins, Bcl-2-related proteins, pyrin domain-containing proteins, cellular serine protease inhibitors (serpins), short complement-like repeats containing proteins, KilA-N/RING domain-containing proteins, as well as inhibitors of the double-stranded RNA-activated protein kinase PKR. We conducted a systematic survey for the presence of known host range genes and closely related family members in poxvirus genomes, classified them into subgroups based on their phylogenetic relationship and correlated their presence with the poxvirus phylogeny. Common themes in the evolution of poxvirus host range genes are lineage-specific duplications and multiple independent inactivation events. Our analyses yield new insights into the evolution of poxvirus host range genes. Implications of our findings for poxvirus host range and virulence are discussed.

Concepts: Gene, Virus, Vaccination, Vaccinia, Poxviridae, Smallpox, Cowpox, Poxviruses


After Edward Jenner established human vaccination over 200 years ago, attenuated poxviruses became key players to contain the deadliest virus of its own family: Variola virus (VARV), the causative agent of smallpox. Cowpox virus (CPXV) and horsepox virus (HSPV) were extensively used to this end, passaged in cattle and humans until the appearance of vaccinia virus (VACV), which was used in the final campaigns aimed to eradicate the disease, an endeavor that was accomplished by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1980. Ever since, naturally evolved strains used for vaccination were introduced into research laboratories where VACV and other poxviruses with improved safety profiles were generated. Recombinant DNA technology along with the DNA genome features of this virus family allowed the generation of vaccines against heterologous diseases, and the specific insertion and deletion of poxvirus genes generated an even broader spectrum of modified viruses with new properties that increase their immunogenicity and safety profile as vaccine vectors. In this review, we highlight the evolution of poxvirus vaccines, from first generation to the current status, pointing out how different vaccines have emerged and approaches that are being followed up in the development of more rational vaccines against a wide range of diseases.

Concepts: DNA, Virus, Vaccination, Vaccinia, Poxviridae, Smallpox, Cowpox, Edward Jenner


The question of the origin of smallpox, one of the major menaces to humankind, is a constant concern for the scientific community. Smallpox is caused by the agent referred to as the variola virus (VARV), which belongs to the genus Orthopoxvirus. In the last century, smallpox was declared eradicated from the human community; however, the mechanisms responsible for the emergence of new dangerous pathogens have yet to be unraveled. Evolutionary analyses of the molecular biological genomic data of various orthopoxviruses, involving a wide range of epidemiological and historical information about smallpox, have made it possible to date the emergence of VARV. Comparisons of the VARV genome to the genomes of the most closely related orthopoxviruses and the examination of the distribution their natural hosts' ranges suggest that VARV emerged 3000 to 4000 years ago in the east of the African continent. The VARV evolution rate has been estimated to be approximately 2 × 10-6 substitutions/site/year for the central conserved genomic region and 4 × 10-6 substitutions/site/year for the synonymous substitutions in the genome. Presumably, the introduction of camels to Africa and the concurrent changes to the climate were the particular factors that triggered the divergent evolution of a cowpox-like ancestral virus and thereby led to the emergence of VARV.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genome, Africa, Vaccination, Poxviridae, Smallpox, Orthopoxvirus


Although it has been >30 years since the eradication of smallpox, the unearthing of well-preserved tissue material in which the virus may reside has called into question the viability of variola virus decades or centuries after its original occurrence. Experimental data to address the long-term stability and viability of the virus are limited. There are several instances of well-preserved corpses and tissues that have been examined for poxvirus viability and viral DNA. These historical specimens cause concern for potential exposures, and each situation should be approached cautiously and independently with the available information. Nevertheless, these specimens provide information on the history of a major disease and vaccination against it.

Concepts: Infectious disease, Vaccine, Vaccination, Vaccinia, Poxviridae, Smallpox, Biological warfare, Cowpox


In March 2017, the American biotech company Tonix announced that a Canadian scientist had synthesized horsepox virus as part of a project to develop a safer vaccine against smallpox. The first de novo synthesis of an orthopoxvirus, a closely related group of viruses that includes horsepox and the variola virus that causes smallpox, crosses an important Rubicon in the field of biosecurity. The synthesis of horsepox virus takes the world one step closer to the reemergence of smallpox as a threat to global health security. That threat has been held at bay for the past 40 years by the extreme difficulty of obtaining variola virus and the availability of effective medical countermeasures. The techniques demonstrated by the synthesis of horsepox have the potential to erase both of these barriers. The primary risk posed by this research is that it will open the door to the routine and widespread synthesis of other orthopoxviruses, such as vaccinia, for use in research, public health, and medicine. The normalization and globalization of orthopoxvirus synthesis for these beneficial applications will create a cadre of laboratories and scientists that will also have the capability and expertise to create infectious variola virus from synthetic DNA. Unless the safeguards against the synthesis of variola virus are strengthened, the capability to reintroduce smallpox into the human population will be globally distributed and either loosely or completely unregulated, providing the foundation for a disgruntled or radicalized scientist, sophisticated terrorist group, unscrupulous company, or rogue state to recreate one of humanity’s most feared microbial enemies. The reemergence of smallpox-because of a laboratory accident or an intentional release-would be a global health disaster. International organizations, national governments, the DNA synthesis industry, and the synthetic biology community all have a role to play in devising new approaches to preventing the reemergence of smallpox.

Concepts: Infectious disease, Vaccine, Vaccination, Vaccinia, Poxviridae, Smallpox, Biological warfare, Pandemic


Human infection by orthopoxviruses is being reported with increasing frequency, attributed in part to the cessation of smallpox vaccination and concomitant waning of population-level immunity. In July 2015, a female resident of interior Alaska, presented to an urgent care clinic with a dermal lesion consistent with poxvirus infection. Laboratory testing of a virus isolated from the lesion confirmed infection by an Orthopoxvirus.

Concepts: Immune system, Virus, Vaccination, Poxviridae, Smallpox, Cowpox, Edward Jenner, Orthopoxvirus


Proteins harbor domains or short linear motifs, which facilitate their functions and interactions. Finding functional motifs in protein sequences could predict the putative cellular roles or characteristics of hypothetical proteins. In this study, we present Shetti-Motif, which is an interactive tool to (i) map UniProt and PROSITE flat files, (ii) search for multiple pre-defined consensus patterns or experimentally validated functional motifs in large datasets protein sequences (proteome-wide), (iii) search for motifs containing repeated residues (low-complexity regions, e.g., Leu-, SR-, PEST-rich motifs, etc.). As proof of principle, using this comparative proteomics pipeline, eleven proteomes encoded by member of Poxviridae family were searched against about 100 experimentally validated functional motifs. The closely related viruses and viruses infect the same host cells (e.g. vaccinia and variola viruses) show similar motif-containing proteins profile. The motifs encoded by these viruses are correlated, which explains why poxviruses are able to interact with wide range of host cells. In conclusion, this in silico analysis is useful to establish a dataset(s) or potential proteins for further investigation or compare between species.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Gene, Bioinformatics, Virus, Proteome, Poxviridae, Smallpox


Myxoma virus (MYXV) is a rabbit-specific poxvirus, which is highly virulent in European rabbits. The attenuation of MYXV and the increased resistance of rabbits following the release of MYXV in Australia is one of the best-documented examples of host-pathogen coevolution. To elucidate the molecular mechanisms that contribute to the restriction of MYXV infection to rabbits and MYXV attenuation in the field, we have studied the interaction of the MYXV protein M156 with the host antiviral protein kinase R (PKR). In yeast and cell-culture transfection assays, M156 only inhibited rabbit PKR but not PKR from other tested mammalian species. Infection assays with human HeLa PKR knock-down cells, which were stably transfected with human or rabbit PKR, revealed that only human but not rabbit PKR was able to restrict MYXV infection, whereas both PKRs were able to restrict replication of a vaccinia virus (VACV) strain that lacks the PKR inhibitors E3 and K3. Inactivation of M156R led to MYXV virus attenuation in rabbit cells, which was rescued by the ectopic expression of VACV E3 and K3. We further show that a mutation in the M156 encoding gene that was identified in more than 50% of MYXV field isolates from Australia resulted in an M156 variant that lost its ability to inhibit rabbit PKR and led to virus attenuation. The species-specific inhibition of rabbit PKR by M156 and the M156 loss-of-function in Australian MYXV field isolates might thus contribute to the species specificity of MYXV and to the attenuation in the field, respectively.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Evolution, Virus, Enzyme inhibitor, Inhibitor, Vaccinia, Poxviridae


During 2014, cutaneous lesions were reported in dairy cattle and farmworkers in the Amazon Region of western Colombia. Samples from 6 patients were analyzed by serologic and PCR testing, and results demonstrated the presence of vaccinia virus and pseudocowpox virus. These findings highlight the need for increased poxvirus surveillance in Colombia.

Concepts: Milk, Cattle, Vaccinia, Poxviridae, Smallpox, Cowpox, Virus-related cutaneous conditions, Poxviruses