Vector-borne diseases are an increasing global threat to humans due to climate changes, elevating the risk of infections transmitted by mosquitos, ticks, and other arthropod vectors. Ixodes ricinus, a common tick in Europe, transmits dangerous tick-borne pathogens to humans. Tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) is a vector-borne disease caused by TBE virus (TBEV). Climate change has contributed to increased tick abundance and incidence of tick-borne diseases, and between 10,000 and 15,000 human TBE cases are reported annually in Europe and Asia. TBEV shows a patchy geographical distribution pattern where each patch represents a natural focus. In nature, TBEV is maintained within the tick-rodent enzootic cycle. Co-feeding is the main route for TBEV transmission from infected to uninfected ticks and for maintenance within the natural foci. The increasing number of TBE cases in Scandinavia highlights the importance of characterizing additional TBEV sequences and of identifying novel natural foci, and in this work we sequenced and phylogenetically characterized four TBEV strains: Saringe-2009 (from a blood-fed nymph), JP-296 (from a questing adult male), JP-554 (from a questing adult male), and Mandal-2009 (from a pool of questing nymphs, n = 10). Mandal-2009 represents a TBEV genome from a natural focus in southern Norway. Saringe-2009 is from a natural endemic focus in northern Stockholm, Sweden, and JP-296 and JP-554 originate from a natural focus “Torö” in southern Stockholm. In addition, we have studied the effect of different biotic and abiotic factors on population dynamics of I. ricinus in southern Stockholm and observed significant spatiotemporal variations in tick activity patterns. Seasonal synchrony of immature stages and total tick abundance are important factors for the probability of horizontal transmission of TBEV among co-feeding ticks. We found that the probability of co-occurrence of larvae, nymphs, and female adults was highest during early summer whereas increasing vegetation height and increasing amounts of forest and open water around the study sites had a significant negative effect on co-occurrence of larvae, nymphs, and female adults.
The proximal part of the 3 ́non-coding region (3 ́NCR) of TBEV contains an internal poly(A) tract, and genomic analysis of Saringe-2009 revealed variability in the poly(A) tract indicating the existence of different variants within the TBEV pool of Saringe-2009. Like other RNA viruses, TBEV exists as swarms of unique variants called quasispecies. Because Saringe-2009 came from an engorged nymph that had been feeding on blood for >60 h, we propose that Saringe-2009 represents a putative shift in the TBEV pool when the virus switches from ectothermic/tick to endothermic/mammalian environments. We investigated the role of poly(A) tract variability in replication and virulence of TBEV by generating two infectious clones of the TBEV strain Toro-2003, one with a short/wild-type (A)3C(A)6 poly(A) tract and one with a long (A)3C(A)38 poly(A) tract. The infectious clone with the long poly(A) tract showed poor replication in cell culture but was more virulent in C57BL/6 mice than the wild-type clone. RNA folding predictions of the TBEV genomes suggested that insertion of a long poly(A) tract abolishes a stem loop structure at the beginning of the 3 ́NCR. Next generation sequencing (NGS) analysis of the TBEV genomes after passaging in cell culture and/or mouse brain revealed molecular determinants and quasispecies structure that might contribute to the observed differences in virulence. Our findings suggest that the long poly(A) tract imparts instability to the TBEV genome resulting in higher quasispecies diversity that in turn contributes to TBEV virulence. Phylogenetic analysis of Saringe-2009, JP-296, JP-554, and Mandal-2009 predicted a strong evolutionary relationship among the four strains. They clustered with Toro-2003, the first TBEV strain from Torö, demonstrating a Scandinavian clade. Except for the proximal part of the 3 ́NCR, TBEV is highly conserved in its genomic structure. Genomic analysis revealed that Mandal-2009 contains a truncated 3 ́NCR similar to the highly virulent strain Hypr, whereas JP-296 and JP-554 have a genomic organization identical to Toro-2003, the prototypic TBEV strain from the same natural focus. NGS revealed significantly higher quasispecies diversity for JP-296 and JP-554 compared to Mandal-2009. In addition, single nucleotide polymerphism (SNP) analysis showed that 40% of the SNPs were common between quasispecies populations of JP-296 and JP-554, indicating the persistence and maintenance of TBEV quasispecies within the natural focus.
Taken together, these findings indicate the importance of environmental factors for the occurrence pattern of the different life-stages of the tick vector, which are important for the persistence of TBEV in nature. Our findings also show that the selection pressure exerted by specific host also affects the population structure of the TBEV quasispecies. In addition, our results further demonstrate that the evolution of quasispecies has effect on TBEV virulence in mice.