Laura Sandra Lello 1 , Age Utt 1 , Koen Bartholomeeusen 2 , Sainan Wang 1 , Kai Rausalu 1 , Catherine Kendall 3 , Sandra Coppens 2 , Rennos Fragkoudis 4 , Andrew Tuplin 3 , Luke Alphey 5 , Kevin K. Ariën 2 , 6 , Andres Merits 1 , *
4 September 2020
Most alphaviruses (family Togaviridae) including Sindbis virus (SINV) and other human pathogens, are transmitted by arthropods. The first open reading frame in their positive strand RNA genome encodes for the non-structural polyprotein, a precursor to four separate subunits of the replicase. The replicase interacts with cis-acting elements located near the intergenic region and at the ends of the viral RNA genome. A trans-replication assay was developed and used to analyse the template requirements for nine alphavirus replicases. Replicases of alphaviruses of the Semliki Forest virus complex were able to cross-utilize each other’s templates as well as those of outgroup alphaviruses. Templates of outgroup alphaviruses, including SINV and the mosquito-specific Eilat virus, were promiscuous; in contrast, their replicases displayed a limited capacity to use heterologous templates, especially in mosquito cells. The determinants important for efficient replication of template RNA were mapped to the 5' region of the genome. For SINV these include the extreme 5'- end of the genome and sequences corresponding to the first stem-loop structure in the 5' untranslated region. Mutations introduced in these elements drastically reduced infectivity of recombinant SINV genomes. The trans-replicase tools and approaches developed here can be instrumental in studying alphavirus recombination and evolution, but can also be applied to study other viruses such as picornaviruses, flaviviruses and coronaviruses.
Alphaviruses are positive-strand RNA viruses, most of which use mosquitoes to spread between vertebrate hosts; many are human pathogens with potentially severe medical consequences. Some alphavirus species are believed to have resulted from the recombination between different members of the genus and there is evidence of movement of alphaviruses between continents. Here, a novel assay uncoupling viral replicase and template RNA production was developed and used to analyse cross-utilization of alphavirus template RNAs. We observed that replicases of closely related alphaviruses belonging to the Semliki Forest virus complex can generally use each other’s template RNAs as well as those of distantly related outgroup viruses. In contrast, replicases of outgroup viruses clearly preferred homologous template RNAs. These trends were observed in both mammalian and mosquito cells, with template preferences generally more pronounced in mosquito cells. Interestingly, the template RNA of the mosquito-specific Eilat virus was efficiently used by other alphavirus replicases while Eilat replicase could not use heterologous templates. Determinants for template selectivity were mapped to the beginning of the RNA genome and template recognition was more likely based on the recognition of RNA sequences than recognition of structural elements formed by the RNAs.