Bayesian Coalescent Inference Reveals High Evolutionary Rates and Diversification of Zika Virus Populations

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Abstract

Zika virus (ZIKV) is a member of the family Flaviviridae. In 2015, ZIKV triggered an epidemic in Brazil and spread across Latin America. By May of 2016, the World Health Organization warns over spread of ZIKV beyond this region. Detailed studies on the mode of evolution of ZIKV strains are extremely important for our understanding of the emergence and spread of ZIKV populations. In order to gain insight into these matters, a Bayesian coalescent Markov Chain Monte Carlo analysis of complete genome sequences of recently isolated ZIKV strains was performed. The results of these studies revealed a mean rate of evolution of 1.20 × 10−3 nucleotide substitutions per site per year (s/s/y) for ZIKV strains enrolled in this study. Several variants isolated in China are grouped together with all strains isolated in Latin America. Another genetic group composed exclusively by Chinese strains were also observed, suggesting the co-circulation of different genetic lineages in China. These findings indicate a high level of diversification of ZIKV populations. Strains isolated from microcephaly cases do not share amino acid substitutions, suggesting that other factors besides viral genetic differences may play a role for the proposed pathogenesis caused by ZIKV infection.

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