Characterization of an alphavirus isolated from a stranded harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) from Alaska

Thaís C.S. Rodrigues, Ole Nielsen, Vsevolod L. Popov, Kathleen A. Burek-Huntington, David Rotstein, Kuttichantran Subramaniam, Thomas B. Waltzek

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The family Togaviridae comprises several significant human and veterinary mosquito-borne pathogens. Two togaviruses (genus Alphavirus) have been previously identified in association with marine mammals, the southern elephant seal virus (SESV) and Eastern equine encephalitis virus (EEEV) from a fatal captive harbor seal infection. Herein we report the ultrastructural and phylogenomic characterization of a novel marine togavirus, the first isolated from a cetacean, an Alaskan harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) displaying ulcerative dermatitis. A skin sample was processed for virus isolation on Vero.DogSLAMtag cells and cytopathic effects (CPE) were observed on primary isolation approximately 20 days post-infection. Transmission electron microscopy of the infected Vero.DogSLAMtag cells revealed typical alphavirus particles budding from both plasma and vacuolar membranes of infected cells. A next-generation sequencing approach was used to determine the near complete genome of the Alaskan harbor porpoise alphavirus (AHPV). Phylogenetic analysis supported the AHPV as the sister species to the SESV, forming a marine mammal alphavirus clade separate from the recognized alphavirus antigenic complexes. Genetic comparison of the protein coding sequence of the AHPV to other alphaviruses demonstrated amino acid identities ranging from 42.1-67.1%, with the highest identity to the SESV. Based on its genetic divergence, we propose the AHPV represents a novel alphavirus species, pending formal proposal to and ratification by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The ecological and genetic characteristics of the AHPV and the SESV also suggest they represent a novel antigenic complex within the genus Alphavirus, which we propose to be named the Marine Mammal Virus Complex. The role of the AHPV in the associated harbor porpoise cutaneous pathology, if any, remains unclear. Further research is needed to determine AHPV's route(s) of transmission and potential vectors, host range, prevalence, and pathogenicity in cetaceans including harbour porpoises.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number198187
JournalVirus Research
StatePublished - Jan 2 2021


  • Alphavirus
  • Cetacean
  • Harbor porpoise
  • Next-generation sequencing
  • Togaviridae
  • Transmission electron microscopy
  • Virus isolation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Virology
  • Infectious Diseases
  • Cancer Research


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