Scientists find the virus that makes piglets shake

"It's been a mystery in the veterinary community for over 90 years," says Bailey Arruda. "Unfortunately, we didn't have the technology to find the virus before." (Credit: Rose Davies/Flickr)

A newly discovered virus is the reason why some piglets shake so uncontrollably that they aren’t able to nurse.

Veterinarians have recognized the congenital tremors for decades but could never pinpoint the cause until now, says Bailey Arruda, assistant professor and veterinary pathologist in the Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine department at Iowa State University.

“It’s been a mystery in the veterinary community for over 90 years. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the technology to find the virus before,” adds Arruda.

Pigs infected with “pestivirus” are sometimes called “shaker pigs” or “dancing pigs” and can easily starve because they can’t settle down to eat.

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Researchers used next-generation DNA sequencing techniques to detect the virus in samples from affected pigs. They then used those results to experimentally reproduce the tremors in newborn pigs.

Earlier sequencing techniques, such as polymerase chain reaction or PCR, require scientists to identify a target before beginning the process. “But that approach wouldn’t be useful in this case because we didn’t know exactly what we were looking for,” Arruda says.

Now that the researchers have identified the virus, researchers can use PCR tests to confirm cases from samples sent in from local veterinarians. The next step is to develop a vaccine, she says.

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Piglets with congenital tremors are fairly uncommon, though the virus can appear in cycles, says Paulo Arruda, assistant professor in veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine. While the virus isn’t creating widespread problems for the pork industry, it can become particularly problematic on individual farms.

The virus does not make pork unsafe to eat, says Drew Magstadt, a clinician in veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine, and the virus is not known to infect people.

Source: Iowa State University