In many cases, avian hepatitis E virus (AHEV) is the causative agent of big liver and spleen disease (BLS) and hepatitis-splenomegaly syndrome (HSS) in chickens. It was first isolated from chickens suffering from large liver and spleen disease, also known as hepatitis-splenomegaly syndrome. AHEV is a member of the Orthohepevirus genus and the Hepeviridae family. AHEV is related to human HEV morphologically, genetically, and antigenically. AHEV's genome is similar but only about 6.6 kb in size, which is about 600 bp shorter than mammalian HEV's. The pathogenesis of AHEV infections is still unknown due to a lack of an efficient cell culture system.
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Fig.1 AHEV structure. (Aggarwal & Jameel, 2011)
AHEV is a non-enveloped, single-stranded RNA virus with a genome size of about 6.6 kb. The virions are icosahedral and symmetrical, with a diameter of about 30-35 nm. Three open reading frames are encoded by the viral genome (ORFs). ORF1 encodes non-structural proteins such as viral methyltransferase, helicase, and RNA-dependent RNA polymerase. ORF2 codes for an immunogenic capsid protein, while ORF3 codes for a phosphoprotein. The ORF2-encoding gene is located at the 3'-end of the genome, where it is overlapped by ORF-3.
Fig.2 A schematic diagram of comparative genomic organization of mammalian and AHEV. (Sun, et al., 2019)
To date, four major AHEV genotypes have been identified and classified into the Orthohepevirus B genus of the Hepeviridae family. While all of these genotypes are geographically distinct, each AHEV genotype belongs to a single serotype. Different AHEV strains are nearly identical in terms of 73 to 100% identity. The AHEV shares roughly half of the nucleotide sequence of mammalian HEV strains.
In specific-pathogen-free (SPF) chickens, AHEV is thought to be transmitted primarily via the fecal-oral route, or via nasal and oral inoculation. Although AHEV is unlikely to be zoonotic, it can be transmitted across species barriers. AHEV has been shown in previous studies to infect turkeys under laboratory conditions. It has been reported that AHEV genotype 3 can infect a mixed animal group consisting of chickens, ducks, geese, and rabbits.
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