Research Uncovers Deadly Snake Disease
August 14, 2012

Research Uncovers Deadly Snake Disease

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

A deadly disease outbreak that devastates boa constrictors and pythons has been discovered, which scientists call Inclusion Body Disease (IBD).

This disease outbreak among snakes is being investigated by scientists at the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco. The team said they may have found a virus that is responsible for this common, but deadly disease, which could ultimately help lead to prevention and treatment options.

IBD is the most commonly diagnosed disease in captive boas, and it is thought to be caused by a virus. Snakes that have contracted IBD may initially regurgitate food, but they eventually show dramatic neurological problems, according to Michael Buchmeier, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of California, Irvine.

Some of the neurological signs witnessed by snakes who have been infected by IBD include "stargazing," which is when the snake stares upwards for long periods of time.

"Some of the symptoms are pretty bizarre - this stargazing behavior, looking like they're drunk, they tie themselves in a knot and they can't get out of it," Buchmeier said in a press release.

The condition ultimately leads to death, and is devastating large aquariums because there is currently no treatment for the disease. The snakes that have been found to be infected must be euthanized to prevent them from infecting other animals.

When an IBD outbreak occurred at the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of science, the aquarium requested help from scientists at the University of California San Francisco.

The scientists extracted DNA from tissue samples of boas and pythons that were diagnosed with IBD, and used rapid, high-throughput techniques to learn the sequence of those strands of DNA. They found sequences of DNA that were marked with the virus.

Later on, the researchers were able to grow and isolate one of those viruses using snake tissue to culture in the laboratory.

Identifying the culprit behind the disease is the first step in developing treatments, vaccines, diagnostics, and prevention policies.

"This is one of the most exciting things that has happened to us in virology in a very long time. The fact that we have apparently identified a whole new lineage of arenaviruses that may predate the New and Old world is very exciting," Buchmeier said in the release.

He said this new isolate doesn't fall neatly together into either of the two known categories of arenaviruses, Old World arenaviruses and New World arenaviruses.

The discovery comes as a shock to scientists, because it is the first time arenaviruses have been found to infect other animals outside of mammals.

"Now we have found that they infect snakes, as well," Mark Stenglein, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF who is the first author on the paper published in journal mBio, said in a press release.

The arenaviruses did not look like ordinary arenaviruses, but looked like distant relatives of other arenaviruses.

The viruses found appear to be a combination of arenaviruses and filoviruses, neither of which have been previously known to infect reptiles.