Wasps do a gain-of-function experiment in caterpillars

parasitic waspParasitic wasps (in the order Hymenoptera) inject their eggs into lepidopteran hosts, where the eggs go through their developmental stages. Along with the eggs, the wasps also deliver viruses carrying genes encoding proteins that inhibit caterpillar immune defenses. Some of these genes are permanently transferred to the lepidopteran host where they have assumed new defensive functions against other viruses.

The viruses that parasitic wasps inject with their eggs, called Bracoviruses, are encoded in the wasp genome. About 100 million years ago a nudivirus genome integrated into the genome of a common wasp ancestor. With time the viral genes became dispersed in the wasp genome. The viruses produced by these wasps today no longer carry capsid coding genes – they are found only in the wasp genome – but only carry genes whose products can modulate lepidopteran defenses. Once in the lepidopteran host, these viruses deliver their genes but no longer form new particles.

An important question is whether wasp Bracoviruses can contribute genes to Lepidoptera – a process called horizontal gene transfer. This possibility would seem remote because the lepidopteran hosts for wasp larvae are dead ends – they die after serving as hosts for wasp development. However, it is possible that some hosts resist killing, or that wasps occasionally inject their eggs and viruses into the wrong host, one that can resist killing.

To answer this question, the genome sequence of Cotesia congregata bracovirus was compared with the genomes of a regular host as well as non-host Lepidoptera. Bracovirus DNA insertions were identified in genomes of the monarch, the silkworm, the beet armyworm and the fall armyworm, but not in the genome of the tobacco hornworm, the usual host of the wasp (C. congregata).

Not only were the Bracovirus sequences found in these varied Lepidoptera, but some appeared to be functional. Two such genes encode a protein that interferes with the replication of baculovirus, a known pathogen of Lepidoptera. This discovery was made in the process of producing the encoded proteins using baculovirus vectors! In other words, viral genes delivered by Hymenopteran wasps were appropriated by the Lepidoptera and used for their defense against a pathogen.

To put it another way, nature has carried out a gain-of-function experiment. Should we impose a moratorium?

The delivery of immunosuppressive viruses by wasps along with their eggs is by all accounts a remarkable story. The appropriation of some of these genes by the wrong hosts should not come as a surprise, yet the finding is nevertheless simply amazing. As long as we keep looking, we will find that the biological world is always full of new revelations.

XMRV is a recombinant virus from mice

recombinant xmrvThe novel human retrovirus XMRV has been associated with prostate cancer and chronic fatigue syndrome. The nucleotide sequence of XMRV isolated from humans indicates that the virus is nearly identical with XMRV produced from a human prostate tumor cell line called 22Rv1. This cell line was derived by passage of human prostate tumor tissue in nude mice. Sequence analyses reveal that the genomes of these mouse strains contain two different proviral DNAs related to XMRV. These viral genomes recombined to produce XMRV that has been isolated from humans.

XMRV was originally isolated from a human prostate cancer in 2006, and subsequently associated with ME/CFS. The human cell line 22Rv1, which was established from a human prostate tumor (CWR22), produces infectious XMRV. An important question is whether XMRV was present in the original prostate tumor, or was obtained by passage through nude mice. To answer this question, DNA from various passages of the prostate tumor in nude mice (called xenografts), and the mouse strains used to passage the tumor, were analyzed for the presence of XMRV proviral DNA.

Early-passage xenografts did not contain XMRV, but mouse cells found in them did contain two related proviruses called PreXMRV-1 and PreXMRV-2. The 3’-3211 nucleotides of PreXMRV-1, and both LTRs, are identical to XMRV save for two nucleotide differences. The genomic 5’-half of XMRV and PreXMRV-1 differs by 9-10%. PreXMRV-1 is defective for replication due to mutations in genes encoding the gag and pol proteins. PreXMRV-2 does not contain obvious mutations that would prevent the production of infectious viruses. The gag-pro-pol and a part of the env region of this viral genome is identical to that of XMRV save for two base differences; the LTRs and the remainder of the genome differ by 6-12% from XMRV.

Comparison of the sequences of PreXMRV-1 and PreXMRV-2 indicates that recombination between the two viral genomes led to the formation of XMRV. When the sequences of PreXMRV-1 and −2 are used to construct the recombinant XMRV, the resulting virus differs by only 4 nucleotides from the consensus XMRV sequence derived from all human isolates reported to date.

The nude mice used for passage of the original prostate tumor were likely the NU/NU and Hsd strains. Neither mouse strain contains XMRV proviral DNA, but both contain PreXMRV-1 and PreXMRV-2 proviral DNA.

These data demonstrate that XMRV was not present in the original CWR22 prostate tumor, but arose by recombination of PreXMRV-1 and PreXMRV-2 between 1993-1996. When the original prostate tumor was implanted into nude mice, some of the mice harbored both pre-XMRV-1 and −2 endogenous proviruses, which recombined to form XMRV. The authors believe that XMRV originating from the CRWR22 xenografts, the22Rv1 cell line, or other related cell lines has contaminated all human samples positive for the virus. In addition, they suggest that PCR assays for XMRV may actually detect PreXMRV-1 and −2 or other endogenous viral DNA from contaminating mouse DNA.

Another possibility to explain the origin of XMRV is that it arose in mice and can infect humans. If this is true, then XMRV would have to be present in the nude mice used to passage the CWR22 human prostate tumor. No evidence for an XMRV provirus was found in 12 different nude mouse strains, including two used to passage the CWR22 tumor. Furthermore, a screen of 89 inbred and wild mice failed to reveal the presence of proviral XMRV DNA. Hence the authors conclude:

…that XMRV arose from a recombination event between two endogenous MLVs that took place around 1993-1996 in a nude mouse carrying the CWR22 PC xenograft, and that all of the XMRV isolates reported to date are descended from this one event.

It is possible that XMRV produced during passage of CWR22 in nude mice subsequently infected humans. Because XMRV arose between 1993-1996, this scenario could not explain cases of prostate cancer and chronic fatigue syndrome that arose prior to that date.

How can these findings be reconciled with the published evidence that sera of ME/CFS patients from the 1980s contain antibodies to XMRV? Those antibodies were not shown to be directed specifically against XMRV, and therefore cannot be used to prove that XMRV circulated in humans prior to 1993-96. Furthermore, in the absence of clear isolation of an infectious virus, antibody tests alone have proven highly unreliable for identification of new viruses.

Where do these findings leave the hypothesis that XMRV is the etiologic agent of prostate cancer and ME/CFS? All published sequences of human XMRV isolates are clearly derived by recombination of PreXMRV-1 and −2. The finding of human XMRV isolates that are not derived from PreXMRV-1 and −2 would leave a role for XMRV in human disease. As of this writing, no such XMRV isolates have been reported in the scientific literature.

Update: A second paper has also been published in Science Express today entitled “No evidence of murine-like gammaretroviruses in CFS patients previously identified as XMRV-infected”. Editors of the journal Science have asked the authors to retract their 2009 paper linking XMRV infection with chronic fatigue syndrome. The authors have refused.

T. Paprotka, K. A. Delviks-Frankenberry, O. Cingoz, A. Martinez, H.-J. Kung, C.G. Tepper, W-S Hu, M. J. Fivash, J.M. Coffin, & V.K. Pathak (2011). Recombinant origin of the retrovirus XMRV. Science Express

Authenticity of XMRV integration sites

retroviral integrationIntegration of retroviral DNA into the cellular genome is essential for the production of new infectious particles. A strong argument that the novel human retrovirus XMRV is not a laboratory contaminant is the finding that viral DNA is integrated in chromosomal DNA of prostate tumors. Nucleotide sequence analyses of 14 integration sites in prostate tumor DNAs from 9 different patients previously revealed the expected viral sequences linked to human DNA. But two of these integration sites are identical to those found in a prostate tumor cell line infected with XMRV.

A search of the nucleotide sequence database with the previously identified XMRV integration site sequences revealed that 2 of the 14 sequences (from 2 patients) were identical to two XMRV integration sites in DU145 cells. This cell line was established in 1978 from the brain metastasis of a human prostate tumor. In early 2010 2007 DU145 cells were infected with XMRV, and sequences of two integration sites were determined (the database entries can be found here and here).

Identical retroviral integration sites have never been reported in independently infected cells. Furthermore, XMRV infection of DU145 cells was done in the same laboratory in which the XMRV integration sites were identified in prostate tumor DNA. The conclusion is that two of the 14 XMRV integration sites in prostate tumor DNA are likely to be the result of contamination. These prostate tumor DNA samples were probably contaminated with DNA from XMRV-infected DU145 cells.

These observations do not directly impugn the veracity of the other 12 XMRV integration sites identified in prostate tumor DNA. However, when DNA contamination occurs it is often ubiquitous. Hence the authors write:

Whilst it is conceivable that the other 12 integration sites apparently derived from prostatic tumor tissues are genuine patient-derived sequences, we suspect that some or all of them may also be the result of contamination with DNA from experimentally infected DU145 cells.

This possibility can and must be addressed experimentally.

Update: While writing this post I received an abstract from the 2011 Conference on Retroviruses and Other Opportunistic Infections (CROI) entitled “XMRV probably originated through recombination between two endogenous murine retroviruses during passage of a human prostate tumor in nude mice”. As usual I will await publication of this story in a peer-reviewed journal before discussing it further.

Garson JA, Kellam P, & Towers GJ (2011). Analysis of XMRV integration sites from human prostate cancer tissues suggests PCR contamination rather than genuine human infection. Retrovirology, 8 (1) PMID: 21352548

Stone, K., Mickey, D., Wunderli, H., Mickey, G., & Paulson, D. (1978). Isolation of a human prostate carcinoma cell line (DU 145) International Journal of Cancer, 21 (3), 274-281 DOI: 10.1002/ijc.2910210305

Dong B, Kim S, Hong S, Das Gupta J, Malathi K, Klein EA, Ganem D, Derisi JL, Chow SA, & Silverman RH (2007). An infectious retrovirus susceptible to an IFN antiviral pathway from human prostate tumors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104 (5), 1655-60 PMID: 17234809

Retroviral integration and the XMRV provirus

XMRVA strong argument that the novel human retrovirus XMRV is not a laboratory contaminant is the finding that viral DNA is integrated in chromosomal DNA of prostate tumors. Why does this result constitute such strong proof of viral infection?

Establishment of an integrated copy of the viral genome – the provirus – is a critical step in the life cycle of retroviruses. Proviral DNA is transcribed by cellular RNA polymerase II to produce the viral RNA genome and the mRNAs required to complete the replication cycle. Without proviral DNA, retroviral replication cannot proceed.

To produce proviral DNA, the retroviral RNA genome is converted to a double-stranded DNA by the viral enzyme reverse transcriptase. This step occurs in the cytoplasm. Specific and efficient insertion of the viral DNA into the host cell DNA is catalyzed by a viral enzyme called integrase. This enzyme recognizes and nicks the two ends of viral DNA, and the new 3′-ends are then joined covalently to the host DNA at staggered nicks made by integrase.

The image below shows some of the characteristic features of retroviral integration. A the top is the unintegrated linear DNA of avian sarcoma/leukosis virus produced by reverse transcription. Upon completion of integration, two base pairs (AA•TT) are lost from both termini, and a 6-bp target site in host DNA (pink) is duplicated on either side of the proviral DNA. This target site varies in length from 4 to 6 bp among different retroviruses. The proviral DNA (middle) ends with the conserved 5′-T G…C A-3′ sequence. The provirus serves as a template for the production of the viral RNA genome (bottom).

To identify XMRV proviral DNA, genomic DNA was isolated from prostate tumors, and DNA was amplified using a primer that annealed in the viral env gene, near the right-hand LTR. Nucleotide sequence analyses of amplified DNAs from 14 9 different patients showed the expected viral CA sequence followed by human DNA. However, the other cardinal sign of retroviral integration – duplication of host DNA sequences flanking the integration site – could not be confirmed, because only the right-hand integration site was studied.

The isolation of the entire proviral DNA, including both flanking integration sites, from patients with prostate cancer or chronic fatigue syndrome would be additional evidence that XMRV is a virus that infects humans.

Kim, S., Kim, N., Dong, B., Boren, D., Lee, S., Das Gupta, J., Gaughan, C., Klein, E., Lee, C., Silverman, R., & Chow, S. (2008). Integration Site Preference of Xenotropic Murine Leukemia Virus-Related Virus, a New Human Retrovirus Associated with Prostate Cancer Journal of Virology, 82 (20), 9964-9977 DOI: 10.1128/JVI.01299-08

TWiV 91: You’re an ERVous wreck

Hosts: Vincent Racaniello, Dickson DespommierAlan Dove, Rich Condit, and Welkin Johnson

On episode #91 of the podcast This Week in Virology, Vincent, Dickson, Alan, Rich and Welkin discuss the nature, origin, and evolution of endogenous retroviruses (ERVs), and the recent finding of endogenous filovirus genomes in mammals.

Click the arrow above to play, or right-click to download TWiV #91 (64 MB .mp3, 89 minutes)

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