Punctuated evolution of myxoma virus: Rapid and disjunct evolution of a recent viral lineage in Australia

Peter J. Kerr, John Sebastian Eden, Francesca Di Giallonardo, David Peacock, June Liu, Tanja Strive, Andrew F. Read, Edward C. Holmes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Myxoma virus (MYXV) has been evolving in a novel host species—European rabbits—in Australia since 1950. Previous studies of viruses sampled from 1950 to 1999 revealed a remarkably clock-like evolutionary process across all Australian lineages of MYXV. Through an analysis of 49 newly generated MYXV genome sequences isolated in Australia between 2008 and 2017, we show that MYXV evolution in Australia can be characterized by three lineages, one of which exhibited a greatly elevated rate of evolutionary change and a dramatic breakdown of temporal structure. Phylogenetic analysis revealed that this apparently punctuated evolutionary event occurred between 1996 and 2012. The branch leading to the rapidly evolving lineage contained a relatively high number of nonsynonymous substitutions, and viruses in this lineage reversed a mutation found in the progenitor standard laboratory strain (SLS) and all previous sequences that disrupts the reading frame of the M005L/R gene. Analysis of genes encoding proteins involved in DNA synthesis or RNA transcription did not reveal any mutations likely to cause rapid evolution. Although there was some evidence for recombination across the MYXV phylogeny, this was not associated with the increase in the evolutionary rate. The period from 1996 to 2012 saw significant declines in wild rabbit numbers, due to the introduction of rabbit hemorrhagic disease and prolonged drought in southeastern Australia, followed by the partial recovery of populations. It is therefore possible that a rapidly changing environment for virus transmission changed the selection pressures faced by MYXV, altering the course and pace of virus evolution. IMPORTANCE The coevolution of myxoma virus (MYXV) and European rabbits in Australia is one of the most important natural experiments in evolutionary biology, providing insights into virus adaptation to new hosts and the evolution of virulence. Previous studies of MYXV evolution have also shown that the virus evolves both relatively rapidly and in a strongly clock-like manner. Using newly acquired MYXV genome sequences from Australia, we show that the virus has experienced a dramatic change in evolutionary behavior over the last 20 years, with a breakdown in clock-like structure, the appearance of a rapidly evolving virus lineage, and the accumulation of multiple nonsynonymous and indel mutations. We suggest that this punctuated evolutionary event may reflect a change in selection pressures as rabbit numbers declined following the introduction of rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus and drought in the geographic regions inhabited by rabbits.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberY
JournalJournal of virology
Issue number8
StatePublished - 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Microbiology
  • Immunology
  • Insect Science
  • Virology


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