A BREAKTHROUGH by Scots scientists could pave the way to a vaccine against a livestock disease which causes stillbirths, miscarriages and deformities.

Virologists at Glasgow University have developed methods to synthesise and alter the genome of Schmallenberg virus in a bid to understand how it cause birth defects in animals including cattle and sheep.

The discovery will allow them to begin developing vaccines against a disease spread between animals by bites from infected midges.

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NFU Scotland had urged Scottish farmers to remain vigilant to the threat from the virus, given the confirmation of cases in the north of England.

To date no cases have been detected in Scotland, but a small number of animals moved north of the Border have tested positive for SBV antibodies, indicating the livestock had been exposed to the virus.

The research, published in the Open Access journal, PLOS Pathogens, was led by Massimo Palmarini at the univeristy's MRC Centre for Virus Research.

Mr Palmarini said: "Insect-borne viruses, known as 'arboviruses', are increasingly becoming a problem throughout the world, whereas years ago they were limited to the tropical areas of the globe.

"This study will help us to understand how Schmallenberg virus works, but it can also serve as an example for other related viruses that may emerge."

The NFUS fears the first cases will emerge in Scotland when the calving and lambing season begins.

The new research, which uses a technique known as "reverse genetics", allowed the team to identify a gene – called NSs – involved in protecting the virus against the immune response of infected animals.

The researchers then made viruses missing the NSs gene and discovered that, without it, the virus adversely affected mice less than the virus containing the NSs gene.