Host-derived pathogenicity islands in poxviruses.
Poxviruses are important both as pathogens and as vaccine vectors. Poxvirus genomes (150-350 kb) consist of a single linear dsDNA molecule; the two polynucleotide strands are joined by short hairpin loops. The genomes encode highly conserved proteins required for DNA replication and mRNA transcription as well as a variable set of virulence factors; transcription takes place within the cytoplasm of the host cell. We are interested in evolution of poxvirus genomes and especially how these viruses acquire host-derived genes that are believed to function as virulence factors. Using a variety of bioinformatics tools, we have identified regions in poxvirus genomes that have unusual nucleotide composition (higher or lower than average A+T content) compared to the genome as a whole; such regions may be several kilobases in length and contain a number of genes. Regions with unusual nucleotide composition may represent genes that have been recently acquired from the host genome. The study of these genomic regions with unusual nucleotide content will help elucidate evolutionary processes in poxviruses. We have found that dotplots of complete poxvirus genomes can be used to locate regions on the genome that differ significantly in A+T content to the genome as a whole. The genes in these regions may have been acquired relatively recently from the host genome or from another AT-rich poxvirus.