Emerging pathogens potentially undergo rapid evolution while expanding in population size and geographic range during the course of invasion, yet it is generally difficult to demonstrate how these processes interact. Our analysis of a 30-yr data set covering a large-scale rabies virus outbreak among North American raccoons reveals the long lasting effect of the initial infection wave in determining how viral populations are genetically structured in space. We further find that coalescent-based estimates derived from the genetic data yielded an amazingly accurate reconstruction of the known spatial and demographic dynamics of the virus over time. Our study demonstrates the combined evolutionary and population dynamic processes characterizing the spread of pathogen after its introduction into a fully susceptible host population. Furthermore, the results provide important insights regarding the spatial scale of rabies persistence and validate the use of coalescent approaches for uncovering even relatively complex population histories. Such approaches will be of increasing relevance for understanding the epidemiology of emerging zoonotic diseases in a landscape context.
This article describes the study that became the basis for further studies on the North American raccoon rabies virus. The researchers describe how they collected data on the viral phylogeny as well as providing some maps delineating its spread.