Molecular diversity and evolutionary history of rabies virus strains circulating in the Balkans
Molecular studies of European classical rabies viruses (RABV) have revealed a number of geographically clustered lineages. To study the diversity of Balkan RABV, partial nucleoprotein (N) gene sequences were analysed from a unique panel of isolates (n?=?210), collected from various hosts between 1972 and 2006. All of the Balkan isolates grouped within the European/Middle East Lineage, with the majority most closely related to East European strains. A number of RABV from Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro, collected between 1986 and 2006, grouped with the West European strains, believed to be responsible for the rabies epizootic that spread throughout Europe in the latter half of the 20th Century. In contrast, no Serbian RABV belonged to this sublineage. However, a distinct group of Serbian fox RABV provided further evidence for the southwards wildlife-mediated movement of rabies from Hungary, Romania and Serbia into Bulgaria. To determine the optimal region for evolutionary analysis, partial, full and concatenated N-gene and glycoprotein (G) gene sequences were compared. Whilst both the divergence times and evolutionary rates were similar irrespective of genomic region, the 95?% highest probability density (HPD) limits were significantly reduced for full N-gene and concatenated NG-gene sequences compared with partial gene sequences. Bayesian coalescent analysis estimated the date of the most common recent ancestor of the Balkan RABV to be 1885 (95?% HPD, 1852-1913), and skyline plots suggested an expansion of the local viral population in 1980-1990, which coincides with the observed emergence of fox rabies in the region.