The genetic blueprint that results in foot-and-mouth being so infectious

November 27, 2020

Scientists have conducted a 'molecular dissection' of a part of the virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease, to try and understand why the pathogen is so infectious.

Foot-and-mouth disease is a highly contagious infection of cloven-hoofed animals, which impacts on agricultural production and herd fertility. Global economic losses due to the disease have been estimated at between $6.5 billion and $22.5 billion each year, with the world's poorest farmers hit the hardest.

A team of scientists from the University of Leeds and University of Ilorin, in Nigeria, has investigated the significance of the unusual way the virus's genome - or genetic blueprint - codes for the manufacture of a protein called 3B. The protein is involved in the replication of the virus.

Researchers have known for some time that the virus's genetic blueprint contains three separate codes or instructions for the manufacture of 3B. Each code produces a similar but not identical copy of 3B. Up to now, scientists have not been able to explain the significance of having three different forms of the protein.

In a paper published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal, the researchers reveal the results of a series of laboratory experiments which has demonstrated that having multiple forms of 3B gives the virus a competitive advantage, increasing its chances of survival.

The paper can be accessed by clicking on the following link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1096/fj.202001473RR

Dr Oluwapelumi Adeyemi, formerly a researcher at Leeds and now with the University of Ilorin and one of the paper's lead authors, said: "Our experiments have shown that having three forms of 3B gives the virus an advantage and that probably plays a role in why the virus is so successful in infecting its hosts.

"It is not as straightforward as saying because there are three forms of 3B - it is going to be three times as competitive. There is a more nuanced interplay going on which needs further investigation."

The paper describes how the scientists manipulated the genetic code, creating viral fragments with one form of 3B, two different forms of 3B and all three forms of 3B. Each was then measured to see how well they replicated.

They found there was a competitive advantage - greater replication - in those samples that had more than one copy of 3B.

Dr Joe Ward, post-doctoral researcher at Leeds and second co-lead author of the study, said: "The results of the data analysis were clear in that having multiple copies of the 3B protein gives the virus a competitive advantage. In terms of future research, the focus will be on why is that the case, and how the virus uses these multiple copies to its advantage.

"If we can begin to answer that question, then there is a real possibility we will identify interventions that could control this virus."

The study involved using harmless viral fragments and replicons, fragments of RNA molecules, the chemical that make up the virus's genetic code.
-end-
The study was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Global Challenges Research Fund.

Notes to Editors

For further information, please contact David Lewis in the press office at the University of Leeds: d.lewis@leeds.ac.uk

The red and green fluorescence in the images show viral replication. Please credit: University of Leeds.

University of Leeds

The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK, with more than 38,000 students from more than 150 different countries, and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University plays a significant role in the Turing, Rosalind Franklin and Royce Institutes.

We are a top ten university for research and impact power in the UK, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, and are in the top 100 of the QS World University Rankings 2020.

The University was awarded a Gold rating by the Government's Teaching Excellence Framework in 2017, recognising its 'consistently outstanding' teaching and learning provision. Twenty-six of our academics have been awarded National Teaching Fellowships - more than any other institution in England, Northern Ireland and Wales - reflecting the excellence of our teaching. http://www.leeds.ac.uk

University of Leeds

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