BACKGROUND: Transmission of vector-borne virus by insects is a complex mechanism consisting of many different processes; viremia in the host, uptake, infection and dissemination in the vector, and delivery of virus during blood-feeding leading to infection of the susceptible host. Bluetongue virus (BTV) is the prototype vector-borne orbivirus (family Reoviridae). BTV serotypes 1-24 (typical BTVs) are transmitted by competent biting Culicoides midges and replicate in mammalian (BSR) and midge (KC) cells. Previously, we showed that genome segment 10 (S10) encoding NS3/NS3a protein is required for virus propagation in midges. BTV serotypes 25-27 (atypical BTVs) do not replicate in KC cells. Several distinct BTV26 genome segments cause this so-called 'differential virus replication' in vitro. METHODS: Virus strains were generated using reverse genetics and their growth was examined in vitro. The midge feeding model has been developed to study infection, replication and disseminations of virus in vivo. A laboratory colony of C. sonorensis, a known competent BTV vector, was fed or injected with BTV variants and propagation in the midge was examined using PCR testing. Crossing of the midgut infection barrier was examined by separate testing of midge heads and bodies. RESULTS: A 100 nl blood meal containing ±105.3 TCID50/ml of BTV11 which corresponds to ±20 TCID50 infected 50% of fully engorged midges, and is named one Midge Alimentary Infective Dose (MAID50). BTV11 with a small in-frame deletion in S10 infected blood-fed midge midguts but virus release from the midgut into the haemolymph was blocked. BTV11 with S1[VP1] of BTV26 could be adapted to virus growth in KC cells, and contained mutations subdivided into 'corrections' of the chimeric genome constellation and mutations associated with adaptation to KC cells. In particular one amino acid mutation in outer shell protein VP2 overcomes differential virus replication in vitro and in vivo. CONCLUSION: Small changes in NS3/NS3a or in the outer shell protein VP2 strongly affect virus propagation in midges and thus vector competence. Therefore, spread of disease by competent Culicoides midges can strongly differ for very closely related viruses.