The TWiX cabal discuss sexual transmission of Zika virus in mice, and how immune escape enables herpes simplex virus escape from latency.

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How prions make you sick

dendritic spineTransmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) are rare, but always fatal, neurodegenerative disorders of humans and other mammals. They are characterized by long incubation periods, spongiform changes in the brain associated with loss of neurons, and the absence of host responses. TSEs are caused by infectious proteins called prions. Insight into how prions cause TSEs comes from the observation that exposure of neurons to prions causes retraction of dendritic spines (link to paper).

Early alterations in the nervous system caused by prions include changes in the synapse such as retraction of dendritic spines, the projections where synaptic contacts occur (illustrated; image credit). Understanding these pathologies has been difficult due to a lack of an appropriate neuronal culture system.

To determine if prions are toxic for neurons, primary neuronal cultures were prepared from mice and grown on layers of astrocytes. Addition of an infected brain homogenate from mice that had been inoculated with the scrapie prion, PrPsc, led within 24 hours to retraction of dendritic spines and a reduction in their number and area. Similar effects on dendritic spines were also observed when purified PrPsc was used.

No effects of brain homogenates were observed using neurons prepared from mice lacking the prion gene prnp. This observation might have been predicted because prion diseases do not occur in mice lacking the prnp gene. However only an N-terminal domain of PrPc (amino acids 23-31) is required for the loss of dendritic spines. It seems likely that this part of PrPc on neurons binds the pathogenic PrPsc form, leading to neuronal loss.

Normal prions (PrPc) are completely digested with the enzyme proteinase K, while the pathogenic prion PrPsc is relatively resistant. Proteinase K treated PrPsc retained the ability to cause retraction of dendritic spines, showing that amino acids 23-90 of the protein are not needed for synaptotoxicity.

Dendritic spines are responsible for excitatory postsynaptic transmission and have roles in learning and memory. Their retraction by pathogenic prions are likely early changes leading to the pathogenic consequences of TSEs. How prions cause spine retractions can now be determined using cultured neurons. It will also be possible to determine if similar mechanisms are involved in dendritic spine loss associated with other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s diseases.


Vincent meets with members of team ZEST at the University of Wisconsin Madison to discuss their macaque model for Zika virus pathogenesis.

You can find TWiV #429 at, or listen/watch right here.

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Zika RNA and virusA study of sexual transmission of Zika virus among mice (link to paper) demonstrates beautifully that viral nucleic acid detected by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is not the same as infectious virus.

Male mice were infected with Zika virus and then mated with female mice. Efficient sexual transmission of the virus from males to females was observed. This observation in itself is very interesting but is not the focus of  my comments.

To understand the dynamics of sexual transmission, the authors measured Zika virus shedding in seminal fluid – by both PCR, to detect viral RNA, and by plaque assay, to detect infectious virus. The results are surprising (see figure – drawn in my hotel room).

Zika virus RNA persisted in semen for up to 60 days – far longer than did infectious virus, which could not be detected after about three weeks.

Many laboratories choose to assay the presence of viral genomes by PCR. This is an acceptable technique as long as the limitations are understood – it detects nucleic acids, not infectious virus.

Despite the presence of Zika virus RNA in seminal fluid for at least 60 days after infection, these mice are not likely to transmit virus after a few weeks. There is a lower limit of detection of the plaque assay – approximately 10 plaque forming units/ml – whether that would be sufficient to transmit infection is a good question.

Why Zika viral RNA and not infectious virus would persist for so long is an important and unanswered question that should definitely be studied.

Recently many papers have been published which demonstrate that Zika virus and Ebolavirus can persist in a variety of human fluids for extended periods of time. These results have been interpreted with alarm, both by scientists and by science writers. However, in most cases the assays were done by PCR, not by plaque assay, and therefore we do not know if infectious virus is present. Viral RNA would not constitute a threat to transmission, while infectious virus would.

The lesson from this study is very clear – in novel experimental or epidemiological  studies it is important to prove that any viral nucleic acid detected by PCR is actually infectious virus. Failing to do so clouds the conclusions of the study.

There are few excuses for failing to measure viral infectivity by plaque assays. Please don’t tell me it’s too much work – that’s a poor excuse on which to base selection of an assay. Even if your virus doesn’t form plaques there are alternatives for measuring infectious virus.

If you are wondering how a plaque assay is done, check out my short video below.

The TWiVsters explain how superspreader bacteriophages release intact DNA from infected cells, and the role of astrocytes in protecting the cerebellum from virus infection.

You can find TWiV #428 at, or listen below.

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Bacteriophage superspreaders

bacteriophage modelBacteriophages are the most abundant biological entities on Earth. There are 1031 of them on the planet, and they infect 1023 to 1025 bacteria every second. That’s a lot of lysis, and it leads to the release of huge quantities of DNA that can be taken up by other organisms, leading to new traits. It seems that some bacteriophages are very, very good at releasing intact DNA, and they have been called superspreaders (link to paper).

In a very simple experiment, E. coli cells carrying a plasmid encoding ampicillin resistance were infected with the well studied phages T4 and T7 and also with a collection of 20 phages isolated from soil, water, and feces in Miami and Washington DC. After the cells lysed, DNA was extracted from the culture medium and introduced into antibiotic sensitive E. coli. Two phages, called SUSP1 and SUSP2, were thousands of times better at releasing plasmid DNA that readily conferred antibiotic resistance. These phages are superspreaders.

Superspreader phages can promote transformation by different plasmids, so their unique talent is not sequence specific. When these phages lyse cells, intact plasmid DNA is released. In contrast, phage T4 infection leads to degradation of plasmid DNA in the host cell. Superspreader phages lack genes encoding known  endonucleases – enzymes that degrade DNA, possibly explaining why plasmids are not degraded during infection. Other phages that lack such endonucleases, including mutants of lambda and T4, also promote plasmid mediated transformation.

Phages SUP1 and SUP2 don’t just spread plasmids to laboratory strains like E. coli. When crude mixtures of soil bacteria from Wyoming and Maryland were mixed with SUP1 and SUP2 lysates from E. coli, antibiotic resistance was readily transferred. One of the main recipients of plasmid DNA is a member of the Bacillus genus of soil bacteria, showing that superspreaders can move DNA into hosts of a species other than the one they can infect.

With so many bacteriophages on the planet, it is likely that there are many other superspreaders like SUP1 and SUP2 out there. The implication is that massive amounts of intact plasmid DNAs are being released every second. These DNAs can be readily taken up into other bacteria, leading to new phenotypes such as antibiotic resistance, altered host range, virulence, the ability to colonize new niches, and much more.

You might wonder if all that plasmid DNA, floating in the environment, can also enter eukaryotic cells – and the answer is yes. No wonder eukaryotes didn’t invent anything.

At the Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Hamilton, Montana, Vincent speaks with Vincent Munster about the work of his laboratory on MERS-coronavirus and Ebolaviruses.

You can find this TWiV Special at, or listen below.

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The TWiVoids discuss the March for Science, the GOF moratorium, and a classic virology paper on mapping the gene order for vesicular stomatitis virus.

You can find TWiV #427 at, or listen below.

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Prions in bacteria

prion conversionBacteria do not develop transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, but they have been found to produce prions – proteins that can adopt alternative conformations with different functions.

Prion diseases, a frequent topic on this blog, are caused by misfolding of a normal cellular prion protein (illustrated; image copyright ASM Press). Prion proteins are found in other organisms, where the alternative conformation confers a new, non-pathogenic function to the protein. At least 12 different prion proteins have been found in yeast, and they confer the ability to grow more efficiently under certain conditions. Now prions have been discovered in bacteria (link to article).

A search of 60,000 bacterial genomes for proteins with prion-forming domains revealed one in the transcription termination protein Rho from Clostridium botulinum (Cb-Rho). When produced in E. coli, the protein forms amyloid – protein aggregates in the form of fibrils – that are characteristic of prions. A 68 amino acid stretch of Cb-Rho can functionally substitute for the prion-forming domain of a yeast prion-forming protein. This protein, called Sup35, can read stop codons in the prion state, and this phenotype was recapitulated in yeast by the Clostridium prion.

The Cb-Rho prion can convert between prion and non-prion conformations in E. coli. This property was demonstrated by placing a Rho-dependent terminator between a promoter and the lacZ gene, the product of which produces a blue color. In the prion state, Rho has decreased activity, leading to blue cells. In the non-prion state, normal termination leads to pale blue colonies. A mixture of blue and pale blue colonies was observed, showing that Rho exists in the prion and non-prion states.

The prion conformation was also shown to be heritable. Blue colonies always gave rise to blue colonies, while pale blue colonies formed pale blue colonies. The blue colony color lasted for over 120 generations.

The finding of a prion in bacteria indicates that this form of protein-based heredity arose before eukaryotes emerged on Earth. Similar prion-like protein domains have also been found in other phyla of bacteria, suggesting the existence of an important source of epigenetic diversity that can allow bacterial growth under diverse conditions. Exactly how bacterial prions confer new functions will be exciting to discover.

Last time we learned that eukaryotes probably didn’t invent the nucleus. Now we find that prions likely emerged first in bacteria. Did eukaryotes invent anything?

The sages of TWiV explain how chronic wasting disease of cervids could be caused by spontaneous misfolding of prion protein, and the role of the membrane protein Axl in Zika virus entry into cells.

You can find TWiV #426 at, or listen below.

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