Have a methyl with your viral RNA

N6-MethyladenosineChemical modification of RNA by the addition of methyl groups is known to alter gene expression without changing the nucleotide sequence. The addition of a methyl group to adenosine has been found to regulate gene expression of animal viruses, and most recently of plant viruses.

The illustration shows a methyl (CH3-) group added to the nitrogen  that is attached to the #6 carbon of the purine base adenine. The entire molecule, with the ribose, is called N6-methyladenosine (m6A). Methylation of adenosine is carried out by enzymes that bind the RNA in the cell cytoplasm.

The m6A modification is found in multiple RNAs of most eukaryotes. It has also been found in the genome of RNA animal viruses. The modification is added to RNAs by a multi-protein enzyme complex, and is removed by demethylases. Silencing of the methylases decreases HIV-1 replication, while depletion of demethylases has the opposite effect. The replication of other viruses, including hepatitis C virus and Zika virus, is also regulated by m6A modification, but the details differ. For example, m6A negatively affects the replication of the flaviviruses hepatitis C virus and Zika virus.

Methylation of adenosine has been recently shown to modulate the replication of plant viruses. The RNA genomes of alfalfa mosaic virus (AMV) and cucumber mosaic virus (CMV) were found to contain m6A. An m6A demethylase was identified in Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flowering plant commonly used in research. This demethylase protein bound the capsid protein of AMV but not of CMV. Elimination of the demethylase from Arabidopsis reduced the replication of AMV but not CMV. These results show that m6A methylation negatively regulates the replication of AMV. Binding of the AMV capsid protein to the m6A demethylase might be a mechanism for ensuring that the enzyme demethylates viral RNA, allowing for efficient viral replication.

While it is clear that m6A regulates the replication of RNA viruses, the mechanisms involved are not well understood. Methylation of adenosine is likely to affect multiple functions, including the structure, celllular localization, splicing, stability, and translation of viral RNA (link to review). As m6A is also found in cellular RNAs, studies of its effect on viral processes is likely to provide insight into its role in cellular biology.

Virology question of the week: why a segmented viral genome?

influenza-reassortmentThis week’s virology question comes from Eric, who writes:

I’m working on an MPH and in one of my classes we are currently studying the influenza virus. I’d forgotten that the genome is in 8 separate parts. Curious, I’ve been searching but can’t find any information as to why that is?

What evolutionary advantage is conferred by having a segmented genome?

Terrific question! Here is my reply:

It’s always hard to have answers to ‘why’ questions such as yours. We answer these questions from a human-centric view of what viruses ‘need’. We might not be right. But I’d guess there are at least two important advantages of having a segmented RNA genome.

Mutation is an important source of RNA virus diversity that is made possible by the error-prone nature of RNA synthesis. Viruses with segmented genome have another mechanism for generating diversity: reassortment (illustrated).

An example of the evolutionary importance of reassortment is the exchange of RNA segments between mammalian and avian influenza viruses that give rise to pandemic influenza. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic strain is a reassortant of avian, human, and swine influenza viruses.

Having a segmented genome is another way to get around the limitation that eukaryotic mRNAs can only encode one protein. Viruses with segmented RNA genomes can produce at least one protein per segment, sometimes more. There are other ways to overcome this limitation – for example by encoding a polyprotein (picornaviruses), or producing subgenomic RNAs (paramyxoviruses).

Other segmented viral genomes include those of reoviruses, arenaviruses, and bunyaviruses.

There are various ways to achieve genetic variation and gene expression, and viruses explore all aspects of this space.