Secondary contact between diverged host lineages entails ecological speciation in a European hantavirus

by Moritz Saxenhofer, Sabrina Schmidt, Rainer G. Ulrich, Gerald Heckel

The diversity of viruses probably exceeds biodiversity of eukaryotes, but little is known about the origin and emergence of novel virus species. Experimentation and disease outbreak investigations have allowed the characterization of rapid molecular virus adaptation. However, the processes leading to the establishment of functionally distinct virus taxa in nature remain obscure. Here, we demonstrate that incipient speciation in a natural host species has generated distinct ecological niches leading to adaptive isolation in an RNA virus. We found a very strong association between the distributions of two major phylogenetic clades in Tula orthohantavirus (TULV) and the rodent host lineages in a natural hybrid zone of the European common vole (Microtus arvalis). The spatial transition between the virus clades in replicated geographic clines is at least eight times narrower than between the hybridizing host lineages. This suggests a strong barrier for effective virus transmission despite frequent dispersal and gene flow among local host populations, and translates to a complete turnover of the adaptive background of TULV within a few hundred meters in the open, unobstructed landscape. Genetic differences between TULV clades are homogenously distributed in the genomes and mostly synonymous (93.1%), except for a cluster of nonsynonymous changes in the 5′ region of the viral envelope glycoprotein gene, potentially involved in host-driven isolation. Evolutionary relationships between TULV clades indicate an emergence of these viruses through rapid differential adaptation to the previously diverged host lineages that resulted in levels of ecological isolation exceeding the progress of speciation in their vertebrate hosts.

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