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Like any other creature, viruses collect mutations in their genomes successively, only faster because, due to their short reproductive cycles, they multiply so rapidly. The mutations mostly have no functional effects but they can be used to construct family or pedigree trees: Related virus isolates carry the same mutations, and additional ones accumulate in subsequent generations.
By determining the clock pulse, it even becomes possible to estimate the time points for branching of the pedigree tree. Using this method and together with our cooperation partners, we previously reconstructed the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa (see Scientific Report 2014/2015, p. 21). Now, we tackled the family tree of the Usutu virus, which wiped out nearly 20% of blackbirds in southwest Germany last year and sporadically also infected humans in Germany. Their family tree shows that they emerged in Africa at least 500 years ago and have been introduced into Europe by migratory birds several times in past decades.
Dimitri Engel, Hanna Jöst, Jessica Börstler, Christina Czajka, Renke Lühken, Daniel Cadar, Egbert Tannich, Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit and external co-operation partners (see publication)