New viruses implicated in fatal snake disease

How the Chipster platform is helping virologists to make sense of millions of virus genomes

Boid Inclusion Body Disease is a threat to boas and pythons in homes and zoos around the world. The disease starts with lack of appetite and poor digestion, but the main tell-tale sign are the many protein inclusions that appear in all cell types. The disease is often fatal.

Besides the trouble it brings to conservation projects, the disease is also an economic burden – imposing strict quarantine rules for the transport of 200,000 snakes a year does not come cheap.

So far scientists know that the disease is somehow related to viruses from the arenavirus family, which are usually carried by mice and may cause haemorrhagic fever or meningitis if transmitted to humans.

Jussi Hepojoki, a virologist based at the University of Helsinki in Finland, and his team set out to sequence the genome of the viruses found in the samples of six snakes. The first step was to isolate the RNA of the viruses and sequence the samples using Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) techniques.

Then, Hepojoki used the Chipster platform to handle the millions of sequences generated by the NGS analysis. To assemble the genomes, Hepojoki ran the MIRA software using the computing resources provided by CSC – who represents Finland in the EGI Council.

“I think that without CSC and Chipster, I would not have been able to carry out the sequence assembly,” said Hepojoki. “The power of ‘normal’ computers is just not enough for this type of work, or it takes a ridiculously lot of time.”

The surprising conclusion is that all samples had more than one arenavirus, some of them from entirely new species. It seems that the viruses previously linked to this disease are only the tip of the iceberg.

The finding doesn’t point to a cure just yet, but “it brings us perhaps a bit closer to understanding the mechanisms of the disease,” concludes Hepojoki.

Feeling poorly? Boid Inclusion Body Disease affects many captive snakes across the world. Image: Jakub Halun/wikicommons

References

J. Hepojoki et al. 2015, Journal of Virology. doi:10.1128/JVI.01112-15 (abstract)