Fluid spatial dynamics of West Nile virus in the United States: rapid spread in a permissive host environment

Francesca di Giallonardo, Jemma L. Geoghegan, Hon S. Ip, Edward C. Holmes, Douglas E. Docherty, Robert G. McLean, Michael C. Zody, James Qu, Xiao Yang, Bruce W. Birren, Christine M. Malboeuf, Ruchi M. Newman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Citations (Scopus)


The introduction of West Nile virus (WNV) into North America in 1999 is a classic example of viral emergence in a new environment, with its subsequent dispersion across the continent having a major impact on local bird populations. Despite the importance of this epizootic, the pattern, dynamics, and determinants of WNV spread in its natural hosts remain uncertain. In particular, it is unclear whether the virus encountered major barriers to transmission, or spread in an unconstrained manner, and if specific viral lineages were favored over others indicative of intrinsic differences in fitness. To address these key questions in WNV evolution and ecology, we sequenced the complete genomes of approximately 300 avian isolates sampled across the United States between 2001 and 2012. Phylogenetic analysis revealed a relatively star-like tree structure, indicative of explosive viral spread in the United States, although with some replacement of viral genotypes through time. These data are striking in that viral sequences exhibit relatively limited clustering according to geographic region, particularly for those viruses sampled from birds, and no strong phylogenetic association with well-sampled avian species. The genome sequence data analyzed here also contain relatively little evidence for adaptive evolution, particularly of structural proteins, suggesting that most viral lineages are of similar fitness and that WNV is well adapted to the ecology of mosquito vectors and diverse avian hosts in the United States. In sum, the molecular evolution of WNV in North America depicts a largely unfettered expansion within a permissive host and geographic population with little evidence of major adaptive barriers.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)862-872
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Virology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2016
Externally publishedYes


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