UAMS Researchers Find Changes in Monkeypox Genome That May Explain Its Recent Rapid Spread

By David Robinson

Led by UAMS’ David Ussery, Ph.D., the UAMS team published its findings this month in the Journal of Applied Microbiology.

The team compared the genomes of the 2022 virus to monkeypox genomes from a 2017 outbreak in Nigeria, plus sequenced genomes from localized outbreaks in 1965 and 1970. None of the previous monkeypox variants spread beyond their place of origin in Africa.

The UAMS team’s bioninformatics analysis using advanced genomic sequencing methods revealed 25 mutations, 14 of which appear to change protein function and bear further research, said Ussery, a professor in the College of Medicine Department of Biomedical Informatics and director of the Arkansas Center for Genomic and Epidemiology Medicine at UAMS.

“At least one of the differences we found could be responsible for why the current virus is causing a pandemic while past strains of monkeypox viruses did not,” he said.

The team’s article notes that the current monkeypox virus outbreak is not only the largest known outbreak to date, the infections result in much different clinical and epidemiological features compared to previous outbreaks.

In July, the World Health Organization declared the monkeypox outbreak a global health emergency.

While the virus is not usually lethal, its genetic makeup is strikingly similar to smallpox, Ussery said, so health officials and researchers are monitoring it closely. Smallpox killed an estimated 300–500 million people in the 20th century before a vaccine campaign eradicated the virus by 1979.

“Monkeypox is 99.5% identical to smallpox,” Ussery said. “It is so closely related that if you are old enough to have been vaccinated for smallpox, you are likely protected against monkeypox.”

The research team’s findings are a starting point for additional investigation in the lab, he said. A follow-up study will be needed to identify the changed properties of the monkeypox virus and to test which mutations are responsible for the virus’ increased ability to spread.

Co-authors on the publication are:

  • Visanu Wanchai, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow, UAMS College of Medicine Department of Biomedical Informatics
  • Trudy Wassenaar, Ph.D., a UAMS genomics consultant and frequent collaborator

Ussery’s work is supported in part by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), grant 1P20GM121293; the UAMS Translational Research Institute, which is funded by the NIH National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, award UL1 TR003107; the National Science Foundation, award OIA-1946391; and the Arkansas Research Alliance.

UAMS is the state’s only health sciences university, with colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Professions and Public Health; a graduate school; a hospital; a main campus in Little Rock; a Northwest Arkansas regional campus in Fayetteville; a statewide network of regional campuses; and eight institutes: the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, Psychiatric Research Institute, Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging, Translational Research Institute, Institute for Digital Health & Innovation and the Institute for Community Health Innovation. UAMS includes UAMS Health, a statewide health system that encompasses all of UAMS’ clinical enterprise. UAMS is the only adult Level 1 trauma center in the state. UAMS has 3,275 students, 890 medical residents and fellows, and five dental residents. It is the state’s largest public employer with more than 12,000 employees, including 1,200 physicians who provide care to patients at UAMS, its regional campuses, Arkansas Children’s, the VA Medical Center and Baptist Health. Visit or Find us on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), YouTube or Instagram.