Pirital-like virus isolates from rodents collected in a variety of habitats within a six-state area of central Venezuela were analyzed genetically by amplifying a portion of the nucleocapsid protein gene using RT-PCR. Comparisons of the sequences from 30 selected Pirital-like virus isolates demonstrated up to 26% divergence in nucleotide sequences and up to 16% divergence in deduced amino acid sequences. Within the Pirital monophyletic group, 14 distinct lineages or genotypes, differing by at least 6% in nucleotide sequences, were identified. Although sample sizes were small for some lineages, many of the different genotypes were sampled in only one region or locality, suggesting allopatric divergence. Complement fixation tests with representatives of the most divergent Pirital virus lineages failed to delineate multiple species or subtypes within the Pirital clade. These results indicate that the previously proposed 12% nucleocapsid protein amino acid sequence divergence cutoff value for delineating arenavirus species is not appropriate for the entire family. When individual clones were examined from PCR amplicons, a mean of 0.17% sequence diversity vs the consensus sequences was detected, suggesting diverse quasispecies populations within infected rodent hosts. Possible explanations for the extreme genetic diversity within and among Pirital virus populations in infected rodents are discussed.
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