A 21.8 kbp region of the genome of variola major virus (strain Harvey), a virus that caused haemorrhagic-type smallpox, has been sequenced and shown to possess 96% nucleotide identity to the corresponding region of vaccinia virus, the smallpox vaccine. Overall the gene arrangement in the two viruses is highly similar and individual open reading frames (ORFs) display a high degree of amino acid identity, for instance 26 of the 32 variola virus ORFs have ≥90% identity with their vaccinia virus counterparts. A remarkable difference is the disruption of seven vaccinia virus ORFs into small fragments in variola virus. These include the variola virus homologue of vaccinia virus SalF2R, which encodes a protein related to C-type animal lectins, and SalF7L, which encodes an active 3β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase enzyme that contributes to vaccinia virus virulence. Upstream of the variola virus haemagglutinin gene there is a deletion of 1910 bp so that the equivalent of vaccinia virus gene SalF17R is truncated, and SalF16R, which shows amino acid similarity to the tumour necrosis factor receptor, is absent. The region sequenced includes the genes for thymidylate kinase and DNA ligase both of which are active in vaccinia virus and are highly conserved in variola virus. Other conserved ORFs with interesting homologies are those encoding profilin, superoxide dismutase and part of guanylate kinase. Two vaccinia virus genes encoding glycoproteins of the outer envelope of extracellular enveloped virus are also conserved in variola virus and this homology is likely to have contributed to the immunological protection which vaccinia virus evoked against smallpox. Lastly, there are multiple instances in which short oligonucleotide direct repeats flank a region absent from either variola or vaccinia virus.


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