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Ebola-Like Disease Has Snakes Tied Up in Knots

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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python ebola virus

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Pyrrhula

In 2009, some of the snakes at the California Academy of Sciences’ Steinhart Aquarium were acting sort of s-s-s-s-strange. Scientists suspected a sickness whose cause was mysterious. Now researchers think they’ve found an unlikely origin, as they watch the disease play out in strange and terrible fashion.

“Some of the symptoms are pretty bizarre,” said Michael Buchmeier, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of California, Irvine, in a recently issued statement about the illness. Sometimes the sick snakes look “like they’re drunk” or engage in “stargazing,” staring up into space. Other times, “they tie themselves in a knot, and they can’t get out of it,” he noted.

The behavior might sound silly, but the underlying disease is quite serious for zoos and other collectors. The illness is part of a broadly described “inclusion body disease,” which can spread among captive boa constrictors and pythons, causing protein buildup, bacterial infections and, eventually, body wasting. “It’s a devastating disease,” Joe DeRisi, chair of the biochemistry and biophysics department at University of California, San Francisco, said in a prepared statement. “It’s essentially fatal every time.” Snakes diagnosed with the disease are usually killed.

After an outbreak of the disease at the academy and reports of a sick snake from a pet owner in San Jose, Calif., a team of researchers became determined to apply new genetic technology called Virochip, which usesR DNA microarray scanning to hunt for a suspect. The researchers first sequenced the genome of a healthy boa constrictor so that they could sort out boa genetic material from that of an infection. They then sampled some of the sick snakes using the microarray. What they found surprised them: A type of virus, arenavirus, that appears to be a distant—and perhaps ancient—relative to the viruses that can cause Ebola and hemorrhagic fever in humans. This type of virus was previously unknown to infect reptiles. The researchers found two strains of it in the sick snakes and were able to culture them in cells taken from another boa to further support the genetic results. The findings were published online this week in the journal mBio.

“This is one of the most exciting things that has happened to us in virology in a very long time,” Buchmeier said. “The fact that we have apparently identified a whole new lineage of arenaviruses that may predate the New and Old world is very exciting.” The discovery might provide new information about the evolution of these viruses and possibly insights into the mammalian versions. The infection has never been documented to spread to humans, but the new findings might also help veterinary scientists work toward a cure or prevention for the snake-striking variety. Hopefully, the study authors noted, “surveillance by veterinarians will one day lead to adequate control of this previously vexing condition.” And perhaps someday, the snakes will knot no more.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. ragnapebble 2:53 pm 08/15/2012

    Why not use this virus to infect the pythons that are overwhelming and destroying the south Florida ecosystem?

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  2. 2. elizabettac123 5:14 pm 08/15/2012

    Infecting the Pythons in Florida sounds like a good idea, but what if the virus mutated and was able to infect humans?

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  3. 3. bucketofsquid 5:38 pm 08/15/2012

    Is there really much of a downside if it crosses into humans? While Ebola is deadly it isn’t very easy to contract. Don’t rub yourself with other peoples blood and you will have little to fear. With the destruction of native wildlife in Florida this disease may be exactly what we need.

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  4. 4. Ignisha 7:55 pm 08/15/2012

    I don’t know whether there are other native boas and pythons in Florida. If there are some, the virus may kill those native specimen quicker than the foreign boas and pythons such as Burmese ones since they are less susceptible to diseases than the native ones.

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  5. 5. alan6302 9:39 am 08/16/2012

    snakes in the tree of life can be lethal. I expect that will be the cause of the “Great Destruction”

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  6. 6. Heteromeles 3:48 pm 08/17/2012

    There are rare boids elsewhere in the US (and especially in central and south America). I suspect that, if the virus was virulent enough to get rid of Florida’s pythons, we’d also see some sort of pandemic that might take out a lot of rare native snakes.

    My personal favorite strategy for Florida’s pythons is market hunting for hides and flesh. It almost worked to eliminate alligators from those same waters, after all.

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