We studied molecular evolution of the mosquito-borne alphavirus Highlands J (HJ) virus by sequencing PCR products generated from 19 strains isolated between 1952 and 1994. Sequences of 1200 nucleotides including portions of the E1 gene and the 3' untranslated region revealed a relatively slow evolutionary rate estimated at 0.9-1.6 x 10-4 substitutions per nucleotide per year. Phylogenetic trees indicated that all HJ viruses descended from a common ancestor and suggested the presence of one dominant lineage in North America. However, two or more minor lineages probably circulated simultaneously for periods of years to a few decades. Strains isolated from a horse suffering encephalitis, and implicated in a recent turkey outbreak, were not phylogenetically distinct from strains isolated in other locations during the same time periods. Our findings are remarkably similar to those we obtained previously for another North American alphavirus, eastern equine encephalomyelitis virus, with which Highlands J shares primary mosquito and avian hosts, geographical distribution, and ecology. These results support the hypotheses that the duration of the transmission season affects arboviral evolutionary rates and vertebrate host mobility influences genetic diversity.
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