Congress fails on Zika virus

Zika virusAndrew W. Gurman, M.D., President of the American Medical Association, has expressed disappointment in the failure of Congress to support the US public health response to Zika Virus:

At a time when concerns continue to mount about the nation’s readiness to protect the public from the Zika virus, the AMA is disappointed by Congress’ failure to pass legislation before adjourning for summer recess that would provide the resources necessary for our country to respond to this looming public health crisis.

Without ensuring there are sufficient resources available for research, prevention, control and treatment of illnesses associated with the Zika virus, the United States will be ill-equipped to deploy the kind of public health response needed to keep our citizens safe and healthy—especially since the spread of mosquito-borne illness is accelerated during the summer months.

I could not agree more with the AMA – Congress has so far failed to do the right thing with respect to Zika virus. Even if the virus does not spread within the continental United States, this country has an obligation to be a leader in scientific research that would benefit the entire world. Zika virus is clearly a threat to other parts of the globe, and by refusing to fund research on this virus, Congress is sending the message that it doesn’t care about the health problems of others.

TWiV 396: Influenza viruses with Peter Palese

TWiVVincent speaks with Peter Palese about his illustrious career in virology, from early work on neuraminidases to universal influenza virus vaccines, on episode #396 of the science show This Week in Virology.

You can find TWiV #396 at, or listen below.

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Do giant viruses have a CRISPR-like immune system or a protein restriction factor?

Zamilon virophageA battle is brewing between two research groups in Marseille, France that are involved in the discovery and study of giant viruses. Didier Raoul and colleagues believe that they have discovered a CRISPR-like, DNA based defense system in mimivirus that confers resistance to virophage (paper link). Claverie and Abergel disagree: they think that the defense system involves proteins, not nucleic acids (paper link).

Virophages are DNA viruses that can only replicate in cells infected by giant viruses like mimivirus. Their name, which means ‘virus eater’, comes from the observation that they inhibit mimivirus replication. A specific virophage called Zamilon was discovered that can inhibit the replication of lineage B and C mimivirus but not lineage A.

Examination of the DNA sequences of 60 different mimivirus strains revealed that the genomes of lineage A contained a 28 nucleotide sequence identical to Zamilon virophage. This sequence was not found in any lineage B mimivirus and in only one out of 19 lineage C mimiviruses. In addition, a 15 nucleotide subset of this sequence is repeated four times in the lineage B and C mimivirus genomes.

Near the 15 nucleotide Zamilon-derived repeated sequences in lineage B and C mimivirus genomes are genes encoding several proteins related to components of the bacterial CRISPR-Cas system. These include a nuclease, an RNAse, and an ATP-dependent DNA helicase.

The CRISPR system provides defense against invading DNA. When a foreign DNA, such as a bacteriophage genome, enters a bacterial cell, some is fragmented and integrated into the CRISPR locus as a ’spacer’ (sequences in the foreign DNA are called ‘protospacers’). Following transcription, CRISPR RNAs (crRNA) are processed by a multiprotein complex to produce ~60 nucleotide RNAs. When the spacer of a crRNA base pairs with a complementary sequence in an invading DNA molecule, CRISPR-associated endonucleases cleave the DNA. The integration of the sequences of the invading DNA into the host cell genome, from which they can be mobilized in the form of crRNAs, provides a form of “memory” and acquired immunity. It should be noted that there are six known types of CRISPR systems that differ in their components and mechanisms.

Because the CRISPR-Cas system is an adaptive immune system that protects bacteria and Archaea from virus infections and invasion of foreign DNA, the authors propose that they have discovered a new adaptive immune system that protects mimiviruses from virophage infection. They call this system mimivirus virophage resistance element, or MIMIVIRE.

The authors provide experimental support for their hypothesis by showing that silencing the genes encoding the endonuclease, the helicase, and the repeated insert using siRNA allows Zamilon replication in mimivirus-infected cells.

Claverie and Abergel think that Raoult and colleagues are wrong (paper link). They provide three reasons to dispute their findings, and ‘propose a simpler protein-based interaction model that explains the observed phenomena without having to extend the realm of adaptive immunity to the world of eukaryotic viruses, a revolutionary step that would require stronger experimental evidences.’

The first problem is that mimivirus and Zamilon virophage replicate in the same location in the infected cell, making a CRISPR-like defense system difficult to conceptualize. In contrast, CRISPR sequences reside in the bacterial genome, from which RNAs are produced that target the destruction of invading DNAs elsewhere in the cell.

The second problem is that the Zamilon sequences in the mimivirus genome are not regularly spaced or flanked by recognizable repeats, a hallmark of the CRISPR system (the name stands for ‘clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats). However it should be noted that type VI CRISPR systems have no CRISPR locus and likely function via mechanisms that are different from other CRISPR systems.

Finally, Claverie and Abergel argue that there is no way for the proposed nucleic acid defense system to distinguish between the virophage and the virophage sequences in the mimivirus genome. In some CRISPR systems this discrimination is achieved by protospacer adjacent motifs (PAMs), short (2-5 nt) sequences next to the invader protospacer sequences that are recognized by the endonuclease complex guided by the crRNA. PAMs are not present in the bacterial genome, sparing it from endonucleolytic cleavage. Nevertheless, non PAM-based mechanisms of discriminating invader from host are known, for example, in the type III CRISPR system.

If Raoult and colleagues have not discovered a CRISPR-like mimivirus defense system, then why would silencing the genes encoding CRISPR-like proteins allow Zamilon replication? Claverie and Abergel think that it is not the 15 nucleotide Zamilon repeats that are important to mimivirus, but the encoded amino acids: Asp-Asn-Glu-Ser (DNES in one letter code). They believe that DNES is a motif present in proteins that block Zamilon replication by as yet unidentified mechanisms.

Many cellular proteins have been identified that interfere with virus replication, such as those encoded by interferon induced genes (ISGs). DNES containing proteins that inhibit Zamilon replication would be conceptually analogous, except that they are encoded by a virus, not the host.

Claverie and Abergele appear to have a strong case that mimivirus defense against Zamilon virophage is mediated by protein, not nucleic acid, but further experimentation is certainly needed to support their position. Nevertheless they recognize that the discovery by Raoult and colleagues “remains fascinating even if it falls short of demonstrating the existence of a CRISPR-Cas-like adaptive immune system”.

TWiV 395: The cancer thief

Vincent, Rich and Kathy speak with Stephen Russell about his career and his work on oncolytic virotherapy – using viruses to treat cancers. Recorded before an audience at ASV 2016 at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.

You can find TWiV #395 at, or listen/view below.

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TWiV 394: Cards in a hand

Vincent and Alan speak with Erica Ollmann Saphire about her career and her work on understanding the functions of proteins of Ebolaviruses, Marburg virus, and other hemorrhagic fever viruses, at ASM Microbe 2016 in Boston, MA.

You can find TWiV #394 at, or listen or watch the video below.

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Zika Zoo

When we decided to work on Zika virus in February 2016, experiments in mice were certainly part of our plans. However, one does not simply walk into a mouse facility and start inoculating animals with viruses! Carrying out animal experiments requires approval of a detailed protocol by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). I have filed many IACUC protocols in the past 30 years, and to work on Zika virus in mice, we had to file a new one. Here is how the process works.

Read the remainder of this article at Zika Diaries.

Are viruses alive?

In this new video from Virus Watch, I tackle the thorny question of whether viruses are alive.

Plenty of people have offered their opinon on this question. The results of a poll I’ve had here on virology blog shows that people are divided on the answer.

But I’m sure I have a good answer to this question.

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.

TWiV 393: Lovers and livers

Possible sexual transmission of Zika virus, and a cell protein that allows hepatitis C virus replication in cell culture by enhancing vitamin E mediated protection against lipid peroxidation, are the subjects discussed by the TWiVerati on this week’s episode of the science show This Week in Virology.

You can find TWiV #393 at, or listen below.

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Zika virus and mosquito eradication

Aedes aegyptiThe Aedes aegypti eradication campaign coordinated by the Pan American Health Organization led by 1962 to elimination of this mosquito from 18 countries, including Brazil. Ae. aegypti transmits not only Zika virus, but dengue virus, chikungunya virus, and yellow fever virus. Could control measures be implemented today to achieve similar control of this mosquito? Two articles in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases revisit the successful PAHO mosquito control campaign and suggest that its approaches should be revived.

The elimination of Ae. aegypti in 18 countries, which was accompanied by a marked reduction in dengue hemorrhagic fever, was achieved by removing mosquito breeding sites or spraying them with DDT. Determining whether households harbored such breeding sites was essential for the effectiveness of the campaign.

The United States did not participate in the PAHO campaign, even though Ae. aegypti was (and still is) present in that country, and was a vector for outbreaks of dengue fever from the 1920s through the 1940s. Peter Hotez (link to paper) cites a “lack of funds and political will” and “logistical difficulties due to lack of access to private homes or cultural norms of privacy in the US”. As a consequence, by 1970 the US became one of the last reservoirs of Ae. aegypti in the Americas.

Eventually the PAHO campaign fell apart and Ae. aegypti returned, followed by outbreaks of dengue fever in the 1980s in Latin America and the Caribbean, and Chikungunya virus and Zika virus in 2013.

Hotez argues that while control of Ae. aegypti is labor intensive and involves house-to-house spraying, PAHO demonstrated its feasibility. He further suggests that by not participating in the PAHO campaign, the US failed to establish a generation of mosquito control expertise, which is now needed as Zika virus and other mosquito-borne viruses threaten to spread. He calls for an “unprecedented campaign against the Ae. aegypti mosquito”. However, he does not specify exactly what kind of control should be implemented, only saying that “these activities might not closely resemble the Latin American programs of the 1960s”.

Paul Reiter (link to paper) believes that the success of the PAHO campaign “can be attributed to a single aspect of the behavior of the mosquitoes: female Ae. aegypti do not lay all their eggs in one basket”, but rather place them at multiple locations. During the PAHO campaign, infested containers were identified and sprayed with DDT, increasing the likelihood that a female would lay eggs at a site that had been treated. This approach is called perifocal.

The current use of fogging machines to spray residential areas with insecticides has a low impact on mosquito populations, according to Reiter, because they only work for a few minutes when the droplets are airborne. He believes that we should return to perifocal treatments to eliminate mosquitoes, but not using DDT. Rather he suggests the use of other, novel insecticides, such as crystals of deltamethrin embedded in a rain and sun-proof polymer that ensures release for three months.

Reiter acknowledges that long-term use of insecticides leads to resistance, in which case we should turn to the new anti-mosquito approaches that are being developed, including the release of mosquitoes containing Wolbachia bacteria or a lethal gene. But he indicates that these approaches “are some way from mass application”, and meanwhile, perifocal approaches could reduce mosquito populations (although the newer insecticides would first need to be tested).

The best way to prevent viral infection is with a vaccine, but one for Zika virus is likely years away. Meanwhile, mosquito control can make a difference, as it could for the next emerging virus well before a vaccine can be developed.