High costs of infection: Alphavirus infection reduces digestive function and bone and feather growth in nestling house sparrows (Passer domesticus)

Carol Fassbinder-Orth, Tess L. Killpack, Dylan S. Goto, Ellecia L. Rainwater, Valerie I. Shearn-Bochsler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Increasingly, ecoimmunology studies aim to use relevant pathogen exposure to examine the impacts of infection on physiological processes in wild animals. Alphaviruses are arthropod-borne, single-stranded RNA (ssRNA) viruses (“arboviruses”) responsible for millions of cases of human illnesses each year. Buggy Creek virus (BCRV) is a unique alphavirus that is transmitted by a cimicid insect, the swallow bug, and is amplified in two avian species: the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) and the cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota). BCRV, like many alphaviruses, exhibits age-dependent susceptibility where the young are most susceptible to developing disease and exhibit a high mortality rate. However, alphavirus disease etiology in nestling birds is unknown. In this study, we infected nestling house sparrows with Buggy Creek virus and measured virological, pathological, growth, and digestive parameters following infection. Buggy Creek virus caused severe encephalitis in all infected nestlings, and the peak viral concentration in brain tissue was over 34 times greater than any other tissue. Growth, tissue development, and digestive function were all significantly impaired during BCRV infection. However, based on histopathological analysis performed, this impairment does not appear to be the result of direct tissue damage by the virus, but likely caused by encephalitis and neuronal invasion and impairment of the central nervous system. This is the first study to examine the course of alphavirus diseases in nestling birds and these results will improve our understanding of age-dependent infections of alphaviruses in vertebrate hosts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0195467
JournalPLoS One
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 1 2018


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)

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