Exploring the phylodynamics, genetic reassortment and RNA secondary structure formation patterns of orthomyxoviruses by comparative sequence analysis

Doctoral Thesis


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RNA viruses are among the most virulent microorganisms that threaten the health of humans and livestock. Among the most socio-economically important of the known RNA viruses are those found in the family Orthomyxovirus. In this era of rapid low-cost genome sequencing and advancements in computational biology techniques, many previously difficult research questions relating to the molecular epidemiology and evolutionary dynamics of these viruses can now be answered with ease. Using sequence data together with associated meta-data, in chapter two of this dissertation I tested the hypothesis that the Influenza A/H1N1 2009 pandemic virus was introduced multiple times into Africa, and subsequently dispersed heterogeneously across the continent. I further tested to what degree factors such as road distances and air travel distances impacted the observed pattern of spread of this virus in Africa using a generalised linear modelbased approach. The results suggested that their were multiple simultaneous introductions of 2009 pandemic A/H1N1 into Africa, and geographical distance and human mobility through air travel played an important role towards dissemination. In chapter three, I set out to test two hypotheses: (1) that there is no difference in the frequency of reassortments among the segments that constitute influenza virus genomes; and (2) that there is epochal temporal reassortment among influenza viruses and that all geographical regions are equally likely sources of epidemiologically important influenza virus reassortant lineages. The findings suggested that surface segments are more frequently exchanges than internal genes and that North America/Asia, Oceania, and Asia could be the most likely source locations for reassortant Influenza A, B and C virus lineages respectively. In chapter four of this thesis, I explored the formation of RNA secondary structures within the genomes of orthomyxoviruses belonging to five genera: Influenza A, B and C, Infectious Salmon Anaemia Virus and Thogotovirus using in silico RNA folding predictions and additional molecular evolution and phylogenetic tests to show that structured regions may be biologically functional. The presence of some conserved structures across the five genera is likely a reflection of the biological importance of these structures, warranting further investigation regarding their role in the evolution and possible development of antiviral resistance. The studies herein demonstrate that pathogen genomics-based analytical approaches are useful both for understanding the mechanisms that drive the evolution and spread of rapidly evolving viral pathogens such as orthomyxoviruses, and for illuminating how these approaches could be leveraged to improve the management of these pathogens.