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Comparing Competitive Fitness of West Nile Virus Strains in Avian and Mosquito Hosts
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    Enzootic transmission of West Nile virus (WNV; Flaviviridae, Flavivirus) involves various species of birds and ornithophilic mosquitoes. Single nucleotide substitutions in the WNV genome may impact viral fitness necessary for WNV adaptation and evolution as previously shown for the WN02 genotype. In an effort to study phenotypic change, we developed an in vivo fitness competition model in two biologically relevant hosts for WNV. The House Finch (HOFI; Haemorhous mexicanus) and Culex tarsalis mosquitoes represent moderately susceptible hosts for WNV, are highly abundant in Western North America and frequently are infected with WNV in nature. Herein, we inoculated HOFIs and Cx. tarsalis competitively (dually) and singly with infectious-clone derived viruses of the founding California isolate COAV997-2003 (COAV997-IC), the founding North American isolate NY99 (NY99-IC), and a 2004 field isolate from California (CA-04), and compared the replicative capacities (fitness) of these viruses to a genetically marked virus of COAV997 (COAV997-5nt) by measuring RNA copy numbers. COAV997 and COAV997-5nt exhibited neutral fitness in HOFIs and Cx. tarsalis, and the temperature-sensitive phenotype of COAV997 did not affect replication in HOFIs as none of the infected birds became febrile. The NY99 and CA-04 isolates demonstrated elevated fitness in HOFIs compared to COAV997-5nt, whereas all viruses replicated to similar titers and RNA copies in Cx. tarsalis, and the only fitness differences were related to infection rates. Our data demonstrated that competitive replication allows for the sensitive comparison of fitness differences among two genetically closely related viruses using relevant hosts of WNV while eliminating host-to-host differences. In conclusion, our approach may be helpful in understanding the extent of phenotypic change in fitness associated with genetic changes in WNV.