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.

Dugas was not AIDS Patient Zero

aids_index_case_graphThe popular history of HIV/AIDS describes a man known as Patient Zero, a sexually active flight attendant who traveled the globe and initiated the AIDS epidemic in North America. A new analysis of the viral genome recovered from his serum and that of other patients in the 1970s proves beyond a doubt that he was not Patient Zero (link to paper).

In a heroic effort, thousands of archived serum samples originally collected from cohorts of men who have sex with men in the 1970s in New York and San Francisco, were examined for the presence of HIV by western blot analysis. A total of 83 samples were found to be HIV positive and subjected to deep sequencing, but the viral RNA was degraded and present only in short pieces. To overcome this problem, many DNA primers were used to amplify short RNA fragments by PCR in a procedure colorfully called ‘jackhammering’. The impressive result is that complete HIV-1 coding sequences were obtained from 8 samples: 3 from San Francisco and 5 from New York City.

Analysis of the HIV genome sequences, and comparison with earlier and later data revealed that the virus likely traveled from Africa to the Caribbean around 1967, and from there to New York City in 1971. These results disprove previous ideas that HIV arrived in the Caribbean from the US.

Sequence analysis also reveals that New York City was a hub of early diversification of HIV, and that the epidemic was already mature and genetically diverse by the late 1970s. There appears to have been a single introduction of HIV into San Francisco from New York City in 1976. From those two cities the virus spread elsewhere in the US and overseas.

It has been suggested that a sexually active flight attendant, identified as Gaetan Dugas by Randy Shilts in his book And the Band Played On, was the source of the North American AIDS epidemic. Although at least one study years ago concluded that he was not the first case, this belief persists. Sequencing of HIV from this patient’s serum revealed that he was certainly not the first person in North America infected with this line of HIV-1 (Group M, subtype B) .

A historical reconstruction of the early days of AIDS in the US reveals how Dugas earned the label ‘Patient Zero’. CDC investigators who were studying a sexual network of 40 gay men placed one man at its center, whom they called ‘Patient O’, standing for ‘outside of California’ because he was Canadian (pictured; image credit). Upon publication of this work, the ‘O’ was misinterpreted as a zero and so began the belief that he was the origin of the AIDS outbreak in North America.

Interview with Thomas Hope

A major new feature of the fourth edition of Principles of Virology is the inclusion of 26 video interviews with leading scientists who have made significant contributions to the field of virology. These in-depth interviews provide the background and thinking that went into the discoveries or observations connected to the concepts being taught in this text. Students will discover the personal stories and twists of fate that led the scientists to work with viruses and make their seminal discoveries.

For the chapter on The Infectious Cycle, Vincent spoke with Thomas Hope, PhD, of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, about his career and his work on using high resolution microscopy to study the cell biology of infection with HIV-1.

A huge host contribution to virus mutation rates

HIV-1 mutation rateThe high mutation rate of RNA viruses enables them to evolve in the face of different selection pressures, such as entering a new host or countering host defenses. It has always been thought that the sources of such mutations are the enzymes that copy viral RNA genomes: they make random errors which they cannot correct. Now it appears that a cell enzyme makes an even greater contribution the mutation rate of an RNA virus.

Deep sequencing was used to determine the mutation rate of HIV-1 in the blood of AIDS patients by searching for premature stop codons in open reading frames of viral RNA. Because stop codons terminate protein synthesis, they do not allow production of infectious viruses. Therefore they can be used to calculate the mutation rate in the absence of selection. The mutation rate calculated in this way, 0.000093 mutations per base per cell, was slightly higher than previously calculated from studies in cell culture.

When HIV-1 infects a cell, the enzyme reverse transcriptase converts its RNA genome to DNA, which then integrates into the host cell genome. Identification of stop codons in integrated viral DNA should provide an even better estimate of the mutation rate of reverse transcriptase, because mutations that block the production of infectious virus have not yet been removed by selection. The mutation rate calculated by this approach was 0.0041 mutations per base per cell, or one mutation every 250 bases. This mutation rate is 44 times higher than the value calculated from viral RNA in patient plasma (illustrated).

Sequencing of integrated viral DNA from many patients revealed that the vast majority of mutations leading to insertion of stop codons – 98% – were the consequence of editing by the cellular enzyme APOBEC3G. This enzyme is a deaminase that changes dC to dU in the first strand of viral DNA synthesized by reverse transcriptase. APOBEC3G constitutes an intrinsic defense against HIV-1 infection, because extensive mutation of the viral DNA reduces viral infectivity. Indeed, most integrated HIV proviruses are not infectious as a consequence of APOBEC3G-induced mutations. That infection proceeds at all is due to incorporation of the viral protein vif in the virus particles. Vif binds APOBEC3G, leading to its degradation in cells.

The mutation rate of integrated HIV-1 DNA calculated by this method is much higher than that of other RNA viruses. This high mutation rate is driven by the cellular enzyme, APOBEC3G. At least half of the mutations observed in plasma viral RNAs are also contributed by this enzyme.

It has always been thought that error-prone viral RNA polymerases are largely responsible for the high mutation rates of RNA viruses. The results of this study add a new driver of viral variation, a cellular enzyme. APOBEC enzymes are known to introduce mutations in the genomes of other viruses, including hepatitis B virus, papillomaviruses, and herpesviruses. Furthermore, the cellular adenosine deaminase enzyme can edit the genomes of RNA viruses such as measles virus, parainfluenza virus, and respiratory syncytial virus. Cellular enzymes may therefore play a much greater role in the generation of viral diversity than previously imagined.

TWiV 360: From Southeastern Michigan

On episode #360 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent visits the University of Michigan where he and Kathy speak with Michael, Adam, and Akira about polyomaviruses, virus evolution, and virus assembly, on the occasion of naming the department of Microbiology & Immunology a Milestones in Microbiology site.

You can find TWiV #360 at www.microbe.tv/twiv. Or you can watch the video below.

TWiV 327: Does a gorilla shift in the woods?

On episode #327 of the science show This Week in Virology, the eTWiVicators review evidence that the HIV-1 group O epidemic began with a single cross-species transmission of virus from western lowland gorillas.

You can find TWiV #327 at www.microbe.tv/twiv.

Blocking virus infection with soluble cell receptors

poliovirus + receptorWe recently discussed the development of a soluble receptor for HIV-1 that provides broad and effective protection against infection of cells and of nonhuman primates. Twenty-five years ago my laboratory published a paper which concluded that using soluble receptors to block virus infection might not be a good idea. In the first paragraph of that paper we wrote:

…it has been proposed that soluble cell receptors might be effective antiviral therapeutics. It has been suggested that mutants resistant to the antiviral effects of soluble receptors would not arise, because mutations that abrogate binding to receptors would be lethal.

We had previously shown that the cell receptor for poliovirus, CD155, produced in a soluble form, would bind to poliovirus (pictured – the very image from the banner of this blog), blocking viral infection. We then found that it was relatively easy to select for soluble receptor resistant (srr) virus mutants. These viruses still enter cells by binding to CD155, but the affinity of virus for the receptor is reduced. Poliovirus srr mutants replicate normally in cell cultures, and cause paralysis in a mouse model for poliomyelitis. We speculated that receptor binding might not be a rate-limiting step in viral infection, and short of  abolishing binding, the virus can tolerate a wide range of binding capabilities.

The amino acid changes that cause the srr phenotype map to both the exterior and the interior of the viral capsid. The changes on the virion surface are likely to directly interact with the cell receptor. Changes in the interior of the virus particle may be involved in receptor-mediated conformational transitions that are believed to be essential steps in viral entry.

When this work was done, clinical trials of soluble CD4 for HIV-1 infection were under way. We believed that our findings did not support the use of soluble receptors as antivirals, which we clearly stated in the last sentence of the paper:

These findings temper the use of soluble receptors as antiviral compounds.

HIV-1 mutants resistant to neutralization with soluble CD4 were subsequently isolated, and the compound was never approved to treat HIV-1 infection in humans for this and other reasons, including low affinity for the viral glycoprotein, enhancement of infection, and problems associated with using a protein as a therapeutic.

Recently a new soluble CD4 was produced which also includes the viral binding site for a second cell receptor, CCR5. This molecule overcomes many of the issues inherent in the original soluble CD4. It provides broad protection against a wide range of HIV-1 strains, and when delivered via an adenovirus-associated virus vector, protects nonhuman primates from infection. This delivery method circumvents the issues inherent in using a protein as an antiviral drug. Because this protein blocks both receptor binding sites on the viral envelope glycoprotein, it might be more difficult for viruses to emerge that are resistant to neutralization. The authors speculate that such mutants might not be efficiently transmitted among hosts due to defects in cell entry. Given the promising results with this antiviral compound, experiments to test this speculation are certainly welcome.

Blocking HIV infection with two soluble receptors

eCD4-FcBecause viruses must bind to cell surface molecules to initiate replication, the use of soluble receptors to block virus infection has long been an attractive therapeutic option. Soluble receptors have been developed that block infection with rhinoviruses and HIV-1, but these have not been licensed due to their suboptimal potency. A newly designed soluble receptor for HIV-1 overcomes this problem and provides broad and effective protection against infection of cells and of nonhuman primates.

Infection with HIV-1 requires two cell surface molecules, CD4 and a chemokine receptor (either CCR5 or CXCR4), which are engaged by the viral glycoprotein gp120 (illustrated). A soluble form of CD4 fused to an antibody molecule can block infection of most viral isolates, and has been shown to be safe in humans, but its affinity for gp120 is low. Similarly, peptide mimics of the CCR5 co-receptor have been shown to block infection, but their affinity for gp120 is also low.

Combining the two gp120-binding molecules solved the problem of low affinity, and in addition provided protection against a wide range of virus isolates. The entry inhibitor, called eCD4-Ig, is a fusion of the first two domains of CD4 to the Fc domain of an antibody molecule, with the CCR5-mimicking peptide at the carboxy-terminus (illustrated). It binds strongly to gp120, and blocks infection with many different isolates of HIV-1, HIV-2, SIV, and HIV-1 resistant to broadly neutralizing monoclonal antibodies. The molecule blocks viral infection at concentrations that might be achieved in humans (1.5 – 5.2 micrograms per milliliter).

When administered to mice, eCD4-Ig protected the animals from HIV-1. Rhesus macaques inoculated with an adenovirus-associated virus (AAV) recombinant containing the gene for eCD4-Ig were protected from infection with large amounts of virus for up to 34 weeks after immunization. Levels of eCD4-Ig in the sera of these animals ranged from 17 – 77 micrograms per milliliter.

These results show that eCD4-Ig blocks HIV infection with a wide range of isolates more effectively than previously studied broadly neutralizing antibodies. Emergence of HIV variants resistant to neutralization with eCD4-Ig would likely produce viruses that infect cells less efficiently, reducing their transmission. eCD4-Ig is therefore an attractive candidate for therapy of HIV-1 infections. Whether sustained production of the protein in humans will cause disease remains to be determined. Because expression of the AAV genome persists for long periods, it might be advantageous to include a kill-switch in the vector: a way of turning it off if something should go wrong.

TWiV 320: Retroviruses and cranberries

On episode #320 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent speaks with John Coffin about his career studying retroviruses, including working with Howard Temin, endogenous retroviruses, XMRV, chronic fatigue syndrome and prostate cancer, HIV/AIDS, and his interest in growing cranberries.

You can find TWiV #320 at www.microbe.tv/twiv.

TWiV 314: Einstein goes viral

On episode #314 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent travels to Albert Einstein College of Medicine where he speaks with Kartik, Ganjam, and Margaret about their work on Ebolavirus entry, a tumor suppressor that binds the HIV-1 integrase, and the entry of togaviruses and flaviviruses into cells.

You can find TWiV #314 at www.microbe.tv/twiv.