A novel group of negative-sense RNA viruses associated with epizootics in managed and free-ranging freshwater turtles in Florida, USA

T. B. Waltzek, Brian A. Stacy, Robert J. Ossiboff, Nicole I. Stacy, William A. Fraser, Annie Yan, Shipra Mohan, Eugene V. Koonin, Yuri I. Wolf, Thais C.S. Rodrigues, Pedro H.O. Viadanna, Kuttichantran Subramaniam, Vsevolod L. Popov, Veronica Guzman-Vargas, Lisa A. Shender

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Few aquatic animal negative-sense RNA viruses have been characterized, and their role in disease is poorly understood. Here, we describe a virus isolated from diseased freshwater turtles from a Florida farm in 2007 and from an ongoing epizootic among free-ranging populations of Florida softshell turtles (Apalone ferox), Florida red-bellied cooters (Pseudemys nelsoni), and peninsula cooters (Pseudemys peninsularis). Affected turtles presented with similar neurological signs, oral and genital ulceration, and secondary microbial infections. Microscopic lesions were most severe in the softshell turtles and included heterophilic/histiocytic meningoencephalitis, multi-organ vasculitis, and cytologic observation of leukocytic intracytoplasmic inclusions. The virus was isolated using Terrapene heart (TH-1) cells. Ultrastructurally, viral particles were round to pleomorphic and acquired an envelope with prominent surface projections by budding from the cell membrane. Viral genomes were sequenced from cDNA libraries of two nearly identical isolates and determined to be bi-segmented, with an ambisense coding arrangement. The larger segment encodes a predicted RNA-directed RNA polymerase (RdRP) and a putative zinc-binding matrix protein. The smaller segment encodes a putative nucleoprotein and an envelope glycoprotein precursor (GPC). Thus, the genome organization of this turtle virus resembles that of arenaviruses. Phylogenetic analysis shows that the RdRP of the turtle virus is highly diverged from the RdRPs of all known negative-sense RNA viruses and forms a deep branch within the phylum Negarnaviricota, that is not affiliated with any known group of viruses, even at the class level. In contrast, the GPC protein of the turtle virus is confidently affiliated with homologs from a distinct group of fish hantaviruses. Thus, the turtle virus is expected to become the founder of a new taxon of negative-sense RNA viruses, at least with a family rank, but likely, an order or even a class. These viruses probably evolved either by reassortment or by intrasegment recombination between a virus from a distinct branch of negarnaviruses distant from all known groups and a hanta-like aquatic virus. We suggest the provisional name Tosoviridae for the putative new family, with Turtle fraservirus 1 (TFV1) as the type species within the genus Fraservirus. A conventional RT-PCR assay, targeting the TFV1 RdRP, confirmed the presence of viral RNA in multiple tissues and exudates from diseased turtles. The systemic nature of the TFV1 infection was further supported by labeling of cells within lesions using in situ hybridization targeting the RNA of the TFV1 RdRP.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1010258
JournalPLoS pathogens
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Parasitology
  • Microbiology
  • Immunology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Virology


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