TWiV 428: Lyse globally, protect locally

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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A new function for oncoproteins of DNA tumor viruses

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!

Interview with J. Michael Bishop

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. For the chapter on Transformation and Oncogenesis, Vincent spoke with Nobel Laureate J. Michael Biship, of the University of California, San Francisco, about his career and his work on oncogenes.

Top secret, viruses with RNA genomes!

Top secret!Today it is well known that viruses may contain DNA (poxvirus, mimivirus) or RNA (influenza virus, Zika virus), but for many years it was thought that genomes were only made of DNA. The surprise at finding only RNA in a virus is plainly evident in a 1953 letter from Harriett Ephrussi-Taylor to James D. Watson (pictured, Cold Spring Harbor Archives Repository*).

While DNA was discovered in the late 1800s, its role as genetic material was not proven until the famous experiments of McLeod, Avery, and McCarty, published in 1944. They showed that DNA from a strain of Pnemococcus bacteria that formed smooth colonies, when added to a rough colony former, produced smooth colonies.

By this time many viruses had been identified, and it was assumed that their genetic information was DNA. The ‘kitchen blender’ experiments of Hershey and Chase in 1952 proved that the genetic information of bacteriophage T2 is DNA. Watson and Crick proposed the double-helical structure of DNA in 1953, and a few years later published the Central Dogma, which suggested that information flowed in biological systems from DNA to RNA to protein.

Amidst all these experimental findings, which gave rise to the field of molecular biology,  comes the note in 1953 from Ephrussi-Taylor to Watson. Under the heading TOP SECRET she writes:

Burnet swears, from work in his lab, that flu virus has principally, if not exclusively RNA. Suspects the same for polioviruses. ??

During her career, Dr. Ephrussi-Taylor carried out work on bacterial transformation by DNA and was knowledgeable about its history as genetic material. Frank Macfarlane Burnet was an Australian immunologist who worked on influenza virus early in his career.

By the 1950s many viruses had been isolated which we now know have genomes of DNA (bacteriophage, poxvirus) or RNA (yellow fever virus, poliovirus, influenza virus). But it was the first virus discovered – tobacco mosaic virus, in the 1890s – that lead the way to establishing RNA as genetic material. Wendell Stanley produced crystals of TMV in 1935 and found that they contained 5% RNA. But Stanley and others thought TMV was a protein, and that the RNA was either a contaminant, or played a structural role.

A structural role for RNA was reinforced as late as 1955 when Heinz Fraenkel-Conrat separately purified TMV protein and RNA. When he mixed the two components together, they formed infectious, 300 nm rods. When the RNA was omitted, noninfectious aggregates formed. This finding reinforced the belief that RNA helped form virus particles.

TMVThis view changed when Fraenke-Conrat gave his wife, Beatrice Singer, the task of purifying TMV RNA until it had lost all infectivity. To everyone’s surprise she found that TMV RNA itself was infectious, proving in 1957 that it was the viral genetic material. However, RNA also has a structural role in TMV virus particles, as it organizes the capsid protein (yellow in illustration at left) into regularly repeated subunits.

Demonstration of infectivity of RNA from animal viruses soon followed, for mengovirus, a picornavirus, in 1957 and for poliovirus in 1958 (the latter done at my own institution, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University!).

By the early 1950s the idea that RNA could be viral genetic material was clearly in the minds of virologists, hence Ephrussi-Taylor’s amusing letter on influenza virus and poliovirus.

*Thanks to @infectiousdose for finding this amazing letter.

TWiV 291: Ft. Collins abuzz with virologists

Vincent, Rich, and Kathy and their guests Clodagh and Ron recorded episode #291 of the science show This Week in Virology at the 33rd annual meeting of the American Society for Virology at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, Colorado.

You can find TWiV #291 at

TWiV 259: Windows into the soul of a cell

On episode #259 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent and Rich join Jackie at the University of Texas, Austin to talk about her work on mouse mammary tumor virus.

You can find TWiV #259 at

From a food blender to real-time fluorescent imaging

single phage infectionAlthough Avery, MacLeod, and McCarty showed in 1944 that nucleic acid was both necessary and sufficient for the transfer of bacterial genetic traits, protein was still suspected to be a critical component of viral heredity. Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase showed that this hypothesis was incorrect with a simple experiment involving the use of a food blender. The Hershey-Chase conclusion has since been upheld numerous times*, the most recent by a modern-day experiment using real-time fluorescence.

Hershey and Chase made preparations of the tailed bacteriophage T2 with the viral proteins labeled with radioactive sulfur, and the nucleic acids labeled with radioactive phosphorus. The virions were added to a bacterial host, and after a short period of time were sheared from the cell surface by agitation in a blender. After this treatment, the radioactive phosphorus, but not the radioactive sulfur, remained associated with bacterial cells. These infected cells went on to produce new virus particles, showing that DNA contained all the information needed to produce a bacteriophage.

In a modern validation of the Hershey-Chase experiment, bacteriophages are mixed with a cyanine dye which binds to the viral DNA (illustrated). Upon infection of the bacterial host, the phage DNA is injected into the cell together with the dye. In time the dye leaves the phage DNA and binds to the host genome. This process can be observed in real-time (as it happens) by fluorescence microscopy.

This technique was used to visualize single bacteriophages infecting an E. coli host cell. It takes about 5 minutes on average for 80% of bacteriophage lambda DNA to exit the capsid, with a range of 1-20 minutes.

These experiments do not simply provide a visual counterpart to the Hershey-Chase conclusion, but reveal additional insights into how viral DNA leaves the capsid. One interesting observation is that the amount of DNA that remains in the capsid apparently is not the sole determinant of how quickly ejection occurs. The amount of DNA ejected from the capsid does appear to regulate the dynamics of the process.

The kitchen blender experiment contrasts vividly with the complexity of real-time fluorescent imaging. Hershey and Chase did not have the technology to visualize phage DNA entering the host cell; they used what was available to them at the time. While improved technology is important for pushing research forward, simple experiments will always make important contributions to our understanding of science.

*The infectivity of cloned viral DNA is one validation of the Hershey-Chase experiment.

Hershey, AD, Chase, M. 1952. Independent functions of viral protein and nucleic acid in growth of bacteriophage. J. Gen. Physiol. 36:39-56. 

Van Valen, D., Wu, D., Chen, Y-J, Tuson, H, Wiggins, P, Phillips, R. 2012. A single-molecule Hershey-Chase experiment. Current Biol 22:1339-1343. 

TWiV 174: Dog runs and mooing miRs

On episode #174 of the podcast This Week in Virology, Vincent, Alan, and Rich consider whether pet dogs might transmit human noroviruses, and an RNA virus microRNA that might be involved in oncogenesis.

You can find TWiV #174 at

Renato Dulbecco, 1914-2012

wee plaques 1952For the second time in a week I note the passing of an important virologist. Renato Dulbecco, together with David Baltimore and Howard Temin, received the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries about how tumor viruses interact with the genetic material of the cell. Dulbecco also devised my favorite virological method, the plaque assay, for determining the virus titer, the number of animal viruses in a sample.

Since the early 1920s bacteriologists had used the plaque assay to quantify the number of infectious bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria). Dulbecco noted in 1952 that “research on the growth characteristics and genetic properties of animal viruses has stood greatly in need of improved quantitative techniques, such as those used in the related field of bacteriophage studies.” One limiting factor was the development of suitable animal cell cultures that could be used to determine viral titer. By the 1950s the techniques for reliably producing and propagating human cell cultures were developed, and in 1951 the first immortal human cell line, HeLa, was isolated. Dulbecco took advantage of these advances and showed in 1952 that western equine encephalitis virus formed plaques on monolayers of chicken embryo fibroblasts (figure). Dulbecco also made the important observation that one virus particle is sufficient to produce one plaque. He drew this conclusion from his observation of a linear dependence of the number of plaques on virus concentration. This seminal advance made possible the application of genetic techniques to the study of animal viruses.

Dulbecco’s work on tumor viruses was focused on polyomaviruses – small DNA-containing viruses such as murine polyomavirus and SV40. He found that cells from the natural host of the virus – mice for polyomavirus and monkeys for SV40 – were killed as the viruses replicated and produced new viral progeny. However, these viruses did not replicate in or kill cells from other animals. For example, when hamster cells were infected with murine polyomavirus, no viral replication took place, the cells survived, and a few rare cell were transformed  – their growth properties in culture were altered and they induced tumors when injected into hamsters. Dulbecco later found that the polyomaviral DNA is a circular, double-stranded molecule; and that in non-permissive cells (in which the virus does not replicate) the viral DNA became integrated into the host cell chromosome. He also suspected that a viral protein called T (for tumor) antigen was a key to cell transformation.

Today we understand why polyomaviruses transform cells in which they do not replicate: infection does not kill these cells, and the rare transformed cells contain only viral DNA encoding T antigen. This protein is needed for viral replication in permissive cells because it drives cell proliferation, activating cellular DNA replication systems that are required for producing more viral DNA. In a non-permissive cell, T antigen drives the cell to divide endlessly, immortalizing it and allowing the accumulation of mutations in the cell genome that make the cells tumorigenic.

While the details of how DNA tumor viruses transform cells were being elucidated, other investigators were attempting to understand how another class of viruses – with RNA genomes – had similar effects on cells. In 1951 a young scientist named Howard Temin joined Dulbecco’s laboratory to study how Rous sarcoma virus (RSV) caused tumors. This virus had been discovered by Peyton Rous in 1911, but would only cause tumors in chickens, limiting progress. In Dulbecco’s laboratory, Temin found that RSV induced transformation of cultured chicken embryo fibroblasts – the same types of cells that were being used to develop the plaque assay for animal viruses. Temin took this transformation assay to his own laboratory, where he reasoned that a DNA copy of the RSV viral genome must be integrated into the chromosome of transformed cells. This led him to discover the enzyme reverse transcriptase in RSV particles, which produces a DNA copy of the viral RNA.

By embracing a new technology for the study of animal viruses – cell culture – Dulbecco set the study of both DNA and RNA tumor viruses on a path that would lead to understanding viral transformation, an achievement recognized by the 1975 Nobel Prize.

Dulbecco, R. (1952). Production of Plaques in Monolayer Tissue Cultures by Single Particles of an Animal Virus Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 38 (8), 747-752 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.38.8.747

TWiV 80: How much X could a woodchuck chuck?

Hosts: Vincent Racaniello, Alan Dove, Rich Condit, and Michael Bouchard

Vincent, Alan, and Rich speak with Michael Bouchard about hepatitis B virus discovery, replication, and pathogenesis.

This episode is sponsored by Data Robotics Inc. Use the promotion code TWIVPOD to receive $75-$500 off a Drobo.

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