Jeremy Luban, Aaron Lin, and Ted Diehl join the TWiV team to discuss their work on identifying a single amino acid change in the Ebola virus glycoprotein from the West African outbreak that increases infectivity in human cells.

You can find TWiV #415 at microbe.tv/twiv, or listen below.

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Eucyclops agilisEndosymbionts, organisms that may live inside of another cell, can be infected with viruses. An example is Wolbachia, which lives inside the cells of insects and nematodes, and is infected with Wolbachia phage WO. It’s always been a puzzle how viruses of endosymbionts pass through the host cell to infect their host. A study of the giant chloroviruses, which infect endosymbiotic algae, provides some answers (link to article).

Chloroviruses are well known because they are big: at one time they had the largest known dsDNA genome, up to 370,000 bases in length (they have since been eclipsed by viruses with far larger genomes). These viruses infect green algae (called zoochlorellae) which are endosymbionts of a variety of fresh water hosts, including paramecium, hydra, and coral.

While inside a paramecium, zoochlorellae can’t be infected with chloroviruses – the viruses can attach to the cell surface but cannot enter the host. If the zoochlorellae are mechanically released from the paramecium, they are readily infected with chloroviruses.

Chloroviruses are certainly found in the same environments as zoochlorellae – which begs the question, how do they infect their hosts in nature when they are shielded by paramecium? The answer is foraging.

Copepods, which are crustaceans found in nearly every freshwater habitat, include Eucyclops agilis (pictured; image credit) which eats paramecia. These protozoans pass through the Eucyclops digestive tract partially disrupted, exposing the zoochlorellae to the external environment. The zoochlorellae can then be infected with chloroviruses in the water.

Here we have a solution to an age old question in virology which involves copepods not fully digesting their food. A line from the movie Matilda comes to mind: Chew your food!

Modeling predator-prey cycles can also explain the observation that the abundance of chloroviruses in lakes fluctuate throughout the year, peaking in late spring and late fall. Rising levels of prey (paramecium) are followed by rising numbers of predators (Eucyclops), exposing zoochlorellae and leading to a burst of virus production.

The traditional view of virus-host interactions involves random collisions between virus and cells that lead to infection. The observation that predation can expose cells to virus infection places a new variable into this process. Whether foraging can explain how viruses of other endosymbionts access their cell hosts remains to be seen. I can imagine, for example, that bacteriophage WO might reach its host cell after an insect containig the endosymbiont is eaten by a predator, releasing free Wolbachia.

I spoke with Eva Harris of the University of California, Berkeley, on the state of Zika virus in Nicaragua.

Zika in the Guys

In this episode of Virus Watch, we explore the finding that Zika virus infects the testis of mice, causing damage to the organ, reduced sperm production, and less fertility. The important question: does the same happen in humans?

On episode #414 of the science show This Week in Virology, Michael Diamond visits the TWiV studio to talk about chikungunya virus and his laboratory’s work on a mouse model of Zika virus, including the recent finding of testicular damage caused by viral replication.

You can find TWiV #414 at microbe.tv/twiv, or listen below.

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filovirionWhen viruses cross species, serial transmission may lead to the selection for mutations that confer improved replication or transmission in the new host. Identifying such mutations in human viruses is extremely difficult: we cannot conduct the appropriate experiments in humans, and often do not have viral isolates spanning the time from spillover through prolonged circulation. The 2013-2016 outbreak of Ebola virus in West Africa is unique because viral genome sequences were obtained early and throughout the epidemic. The results of two new studies (link to paper one, link to paper two) suggest that some of the observed mutations increase infectivity for human cells. The impact of these mutations on infection of humans, and their role in the West African outbreak, remain unknown.

Many mutations have been identified among the many hundreds of genome sequences obtained during the recent Ebola virus epidemic. One stands out: a mutation that leads to a single amino acid change in the viral glycoprotein, from alanine to valine at position 82 (A82V). This change arose early in the outbreak (it was first observed in Guinea in March 2014) and was subsequently found in most of the isolates. It has never been observed in previous Ebolavirus outbreaks.

The effect of the A82V change on viral infectivity was determined by building pseudotyped viral particles – in this case, HIV particles with the Ebola virus glycoprotein. Human cells in culture were infected with pseudotyped viruses with the Ebola virus glycoprotein with either alanine or valine at position 82. Infectivity was measured by quantifying the production of a protein from the HIV genome. The results show that A82V increases infectivity by twofold. The effect is also observed in cells from non-human primates, but not from rodents, dogs, or cats. However, the A82V change decreased infectivity in bat cells.

The A82V change is located at the binding site of the Ebola virus glycoprotein with the cell fusion receptor, NPC1. It appears to increase the fusion activity of the viral glycoprotein.

Other amino acid changes in the Ebola virus glycoprotein were also observed to increase infectivity in human cells, and decrease infectivity in bat cells.

The pattern of increased infectivity in primate cells, and decreased infectivity in bats, is consistent with the hypothesis that the outbreak virus came from bats, and after circulation of the virus in humans, it lost some ability to infect bat cells while becoming better at infecting human cells. However there is still no solid proof that bats are a reservoir of Ebolaviruses.

What does increased infectivity have to do with infection of humans? The idea is that the mutation increases the efficiency of virus entry into cells, and hence increased viral gene expression is observed. Fewer viruses needed to infect a cell, the better chance of initiating an infection. But is the two-fold increase observed in cells enough to impact infection in humans?

The assays used in these papers measure protein production from an HIV genome. The experiments need to be repeated using bona fide Ebola virus, to make sure that the mutations have the same effect. The changes might have impacts on other stages of viral replication. Furthermore, the impact of the changes in the viral glycoprotein should be assessed in animal models, to determine if improved infectivity has any impact on pathogenesis and transmission. Ultimately, we can’t prove that these mutations have any effect in humans – the needed experiments cannot be done.

I’m curious about why the A82V change was not seen in previous Ebola virus outbreaks. Those were in different parts of Africa – could the changes be driven by population genetics, ecology, or other factors? It will be important to determine if the same change is selected in future outbreaks.

The authors are sufficiently cautious in their conclusions. From paper #2:

Despite the experimental data provided here, it is impossible to clearly establish whether the adaptive mutations observed were in part responsible for the extended duration of the 2013–2016 epidemic. Indeed, it seems likely that the prolonged nature of the outbreak in West Africa was primarily due to epide- miological factors, such as an increased circulation in urban areas that in turn led to larger chains of transmission.

From paper #1:

Our findings raise the possibility that this mutation contributed directly to greater transmission and thus to the severity of the outbreak. It is difficult to draw any conclusions from this hypothesis, though…

As I feared, press coverage of these findings has been inaccurate. For example, a BBC headline proclaims “Ebola adapted to easily infect people”. Even the journal Cell, which published both papers, made an incorrect conlcusion: see the screen capture below from the journal website.key mutations ebola virusBoth Cell and the BBC might have taken too literally the unfortunate title of one of the papers,  “Human adaptation of Ebola virus during the West African Outbreak.” The results suggest adaptation to human cells, not to humans. The title of the second paper is sufficiently careful: “Ebola virus glycoprotein with increased infectivity dominated the 2013-2016 epidemic”. But that’s not a BBC headline.

From the EIDA2Z conference at Boston University, Vincent, Alan and Paul meet up with Ralph Baric, Felix Drexler, Marion Koopmans, and Stacey Schultz-Cherry to talk about discovering, understanding, protecting, and collaborating on emerging infectious diseases.

You can find TWiV #413 at microbe.tv/twiv, or watch or listen here.

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coronavirus and reovirus A novel coronavirus isolated from bats in China is unusual because the genome contains a gene from a virus in a completely different family, the Reoviridae (link to paper). The finding suggests that recombination occurred between a (+) strand RNA virus and a virus with a segmented, double-stranded RNA genome.

The unusual recombinant virus was identified in rectal swabs from Rousettus leschenaulti bats in Yunnan Province, China. Sequence analysis revealed a typical coronavirus genome with the exception of a small region near the 3′-end of the viral RNA with homology to a bat reovirus. This sequence, called p10, was also detected in viral mRNAs from infected bats, further demonstrating the presence of the reovirus-like gene in the coronavirus genome.

In bat reoviruses, the p10 gene is known to encode a protein that causes cell fusion. When the p10 gene from the bat coronavirus was expressed in cells, formation of syncytia (fused cells) was observed. Furthemore, the p10 protein was detected by western blot analysis of feces from infected bats. These results indicate that the p10 protein is produced from the viral genome and that the protein is functional.

This report is not the first suggesting recombination between viruses of different families – we discussed one example here previously (link to article), and there are a handful of other examples. The important question is how such inter-family recombinants arise. It must begin with co-infection of a host with two different viruses – in this case, likely a bat – but the precise molecular events are unknown. It might be useful to attempt to isolate such recombinants in cell culture to understand the underlying mechanisms.

The TWiVome reveal the first eukaryotic genes found in a bacteriophage of Wolbachia, and how DNA tumor virus oncogenes antagonize sensing of cytoplasmic DNA by the cell.

You can find TWiV #412 at microbe.tv/twiv, or listen below.

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oncoproteinsOncogenes of DNA tumor viruses encode proteins that cause cells to divide incessantly, eventually leading to formation of a tumor. These oncoproteins have now been found to antagonize the innate immune response of the cell (link to paper).

Most cells encountered by viruses are not dividing, and hence do not efficiently support viral DNA synthesis. The genomes of adenoviruses, polyomaviruses, and papillomaviruses encode proteins that cause cells to divide. This effect allows for efficient viral replication, because a dividing cell is producing the machinery for DNA synthesis. Under certain conditions, infections by these viruses do not kill cells, yet they continue to divide due to the presence of viral oncoproteins. Such incessant division gives the cells new properties – they are called transformed cells – and they may eventually become a tumor.

These so-called viral oncoproteins include large T antigen (of SV40, a polyomavirus); E6 and E7 (papillomavirus), and E1A (adenovirus). These viral proteins kick cells into mitosis by inactivating cell proteins (such as Rb, pictured) that are normally involved in regulating cell growth. The cells divide, and in the process produce proteins involved in DNA replication, which are then used for viral replication. These oncoproteins accidentally cause tumors: the replication of none of these viruses is dependent on transformation or tumor formation.

Cells transformed with T, E6/E7, or E1A proteins are commonly used in laboratories because they are immortal. An example is the famous HeLa cell line, transformed by human papillomavirus type 18 (which originally infected Henrietta Lacks and caused the cervical tumor that killed her). Another commonly used transformed cell line is 293 (human embryonic kidney cells transformed by adenovirus E1A). It’s been known for some time that when DNA is introduced into normal (that is, not transformed) cells, they respond with an innate response: interferons are produced. In contrast, when DNA is introduced into the cytoplasm of a transformed cell, there is no interferon response.

To understand why HeLa and HEK 293 cell lines did not respond to cytoplasmic DNA, the authors silenced the viral oncogenes by disrupting them with CRISPR/Cas9. The altered cells produced interferon in response to cytoplasmic DNA. Furthermore, they produced new transformed lines by introducing genes encoding E6, E7, E1A, or T into normal mouse embryonic fibroblasts. These new transformed cells failed to respond to cytoplasmic DNA.

Cytoplasmic DNA is detected in cells by an enzyme called cGAS (cyclic guanosine monophosphate-adenosine monophosphate synthase) together with an adaptor protein known as STING (stimulator of interferon genes). When cytoplasmic DNA is detected by this system, the antiviral interferons are produced. The viral oncoproteins were found to directly bind STING, but not cGAS. A five amino acid sequence within E1A and E7 proteins was identified that is responsible for overcoming the interferon response to cytoplasmic DNA. When this sequence was altered, interaction of the oncoprotein with cGAS was reduced, and antagonism of interferon production in response to cytoplasmic DNA was blocked.

These findings provide a new function for the oncoproteins from three DNA tumor viruses: antagonism of the interferon response to cytoplasmic DNA. Normally DNA is present in the cell nucleus, and when it is detected in the cytoplasm, this is a signal that a virus infection is underway. The cytoplasmic DNA is sensed by the cGAS-STING system, leading to interferon production and elimination of infection. A herpesvirus protein has been identified that binds to STING and blocks interferon responses to cytoplasmic DNA. Clearly antagonism of the cGAS-STING DNA sensing system is of benefit to DNA viruses.

An interesting question is what selection pressure drove the evolution of viral oncogenes. One hypothesis, described above, is that they are needed to induce a cellular environment that supports viral DNA synthesis. The other idea, favored by the authors of this new work, is that oncogenes arose as antagonists of innate immune signaling. But I can’t imagine these DNA viruses without oncogenes, because they would not be able to replicate very efficiently. Could both functions have been simultaneously selected for? Why not – the same five amino acid sequence that binds cGAS also binds cellular proteins (such as Rb), disrupting their function and leading to uncontrolled cell growth!