Avian keratin disorder (AKD) is an epizootic of debilitating beak deformities, first documented in black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) in Alaska during the late 1990s. Similar deformities have now been recorded in dozens of species of birds across multiple continents. Despite this, the etiology of AKD has remained elusive, making it difficult to assess the impacts of this disease on wild populations. We previously identified an association between infection with a novel picornavirus, Poecivirus, and AKD in a small cohort of black-capped chickadees.
To test if the association between Poecivirus and AKD holds in a larger study population, we used targeted PCR followed by Sanger sequencing to screen 124 symptomatic and asymptomatic black-capped chickadees for Poecivirus infection. We further compared the efficacy of multiple non-terminal field sampling methods (buccal swabs, cloacal swabs, fecal samples, and blood samples) for Poecivirus screening. Finally, we used both in situ hybridization and a strand-specific expression assay to localize Poecivirus to beak tissue of AKD-positive individuals and to determine if virus is actively replicating in beak tissue.
Poecivirus was detected in 28/28 (100%) individuals with AKD, but only 9/96 (9.4%) asymptomatic individuals with apparently normal beaks (p < 0.0001). We found that cloacal swabs are the most sensitive of these sample types for detecting Poecivirus in birds with AKD, but that buccal swabs should be combined with cloacal swabs in evaluating the infection status of asymptomatic birds. Finally, we used both in situ hybridization and a strand-specific expression assay to localize Poecivirus to beak tissue of AKD-positive individuals and to provide evidence of active viral replication.
The data presented here show a strong, statistically significant relationship between Poecivirus infection and AKD, and provide evidence that Poecivirus is indeed an avian virus, infecting and actively replicating in beak tissue of AKD-affected BCCH. Taken together, these data corroborate and extend the evidence for a potential causal association between Poecivirus and AKD in the black-capped chickadee. Poecivirus continues to warrant further investigation as a candidate agent of AKD.
- Digital Object Identifier: 10.1186/s12985-018-1008-5
- Source: USGS Publications Warehouse (indexId: 70197820)