Engineering Reporter Tags in Flaviviruses to Probe Viral Structure and Morphogenesis
2020-04-24T02:30:40Z (GMT) by
The family Flaviviridae includes important genera such as flavivirus and hepacivirus which comprise significant human pathogens that affect hundreds of millions annually. The understanding of these viruses, the viral life cycle, and pathogenicity is vital when it comes to developing therapeutics. Flavivirus virions undergo major conformational rearrangements during the life cycle, including the assembly and maturation steps. In order to create a reagent to investigate these processes, luminescent reporter viruses have been constructed. Luminescent reporter tags have yet to be incorporated into the structural proteins of dengue virus (DENV) without significantly affecting replication or infectivity and successful tagging would allow for targeted studies examining access to specific structural epitopes. Engineering tags in DENV structural proteins is particularly difficult because most reporter tags involve large insertions which may create steric hindrance and inhibit proper protein folding. However, the reporter system described here, developed by Promega, is much smaller than a full-size luciferase protein. It involves an eleven amino acid subunit (HiBiT) tagged to a viral protein that creates measurable luminescence when incubated with the larger subunit (LgBiT). Using the structure of the virion as a guide, the HiBiT reporter tag was incorporated into the structural region of the DENV genome including sites in capsid (C) as well as the glycoproteins membrane (M) and envelope (E). Resulting recombinant viruses were characterized and tag sites within the C protein membrane anchor as well as the transmembrane domain of M protein were found to tolerate HiBiT insertion and produce infectious particles. The recombinant virus possessing HiBiT in C protein was found to be stable over three rounds of serial passaging while virus containing the M protein tag site was found to be unstable. HiBiT activity of the capsid tagged virus was also found to directly correlate with purified infectious particles, suggesting the capsid membrane anchor may remain associated with the virus even after polyprotein processing. Additionally, insert composition was found to be a key determinant for the production of infectious virus. The lessons learned from engineering HiBiT in the DENV system were then applied to hepatitis C virus (HCV).
The highly lipophilic and pleiomorphic nature of HCV has made structural studies particularly difficult. However, by constructing multi-tagged reporter viruses containing both HiBiT and various purification tags, researchers will save time and resources in preparation for structural studies which are vital for vaccine development. In this study, HiBiT was incorporated into sites within HCV previously shown to tolerate tags of various sizes. Different insert compositions were engineered within the genome and the construct containing both FLAG and HiBiT tags within the N-terminus of E2 yielded highly infectious and quantifiable, luminescent virus. The recombinant HCV containing FLAG and HiBiT displayed similar peak titer as compared to WT while also demonstrating HiBiT activity. Furthermore, the FLAG peptide was found to be partially surface exposed and capable of being used for virus purification purposes. The multi-tagged reporter virus characterized in this study provides a robust platform for quantification and purification of HCV, two facets of research that are critical for the determination of viral structure via cryo-EM and other imaging techniques. The findings from both the DENV and HCV studies provide a robust foundation for future tagging of viruses within the family Flaviviridae and offer insight on the structural proteins that compose the virion.