PLoS Biol 2019 Apr 19;17(4):e3000217. Epub 2019 Apr 19.
BioFrontiers Institute and Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, United States of America.
Viruses of wild and domestic animals can infect humans in a process called zoonosis, and these events can give rise to explosive epidemics such as those caused by the HIV and Ebola viruses. While humans are constantly exposed to animal viruses, those that can successfully infect and transmit between humans are exceedingly rare. The key event in zoonosis is when an animal virus begins to replicate (one virion making many) in the first human subject. Only at this point will the animal virus first experience the selective environment of the human body, rendering possible viral adaptation and refinement for humans. In addition, appreciable viral titers in this first human may enable infection of a second, thus initiating selection for viral variants with increased capacity for spread. We assert that host genetics plays a critical role in defining which animal viruses in nature will achieve this key event of replication in a first human host. This is because animal viruses that pose the greatest risk to humans will have few (or no) genetic barriers to replicating themselves in human cells, thus requiring minimal mutations to make this jump. Only experimental virology provides a path to identifying animal viruses with the potential to replicate themselves in humans because this information will not be evident from viral sequencing data alone.