Widespread occurrence of Squirrel adenovirus 1 in red and grey squirrels in Scotland detected by a novel real-time PCR assay
The Eurasian Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is distributed throughout large parts of Europe and Asia. However, its distribution in certain regions of Europe is endangered by the invasive, non-native Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Adenoviruses were already described in squirrels in Great Britain almost two decades ago. In 2013, a squirrel adenovirus (SqAdV-1) was additionally found in a red squirrel from Germany, which suffered from acute diffuse catarrhal enteritis, and the complete genome sequence was determined. Here, samples from dead red (n = 25) and grey (n = 12) squirrels collected in Scotland, UK, were analysed for the presence of this squirrel-associated virus. By using a newly developed real-time PCR targeting the adenoviral polymerase gene, viral DNA was detected in at least one of four tissue samples tested per animal in 64.0% of the red squirrels and 41.7% of the grey squirrels. Exceptionally high viral genome loads were detected in the intestine and liver, but SqAdV-1 was also present in lung and kidney samples of affected animals. Almost complete genome sequence determination of a red squirrel-derived SqAdV-1 strain from Scotland indicated a very high degree of identity to the first German strain. Sequence analysis of the hexon gene, which encodes one of the major antigens of the virion, revealed an identity of 100% between viruses found in red and grey squirrels from Scotland. In conclusion, SqAdV-1 appears to be widespread in the Scottish red and grey squirrel population, which highlights the necessity for continuous wildlife surveillance. The novel real-time PCR assay offers a highly sensitive and robust method for SqAdV-1 surveillance.
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