Journal of virology

Evolution of the Bunyamwera virus polymerase to accommodate deletions within genomic untranslated region sequences.

PMID 25609819


The untranslated regions (UTR) present at the ends of bunyavirus genome segments are required for essential steps in the virus life cycle and provide signals for encapsidation by nucleocapsid protein and the promoters for RNA transcription and replication as well as for mRNA transcription termination. For the prototype bunyavirus, Bunyamwera virus (BUNV), only the terminal 11 nucleotides (nt) of the segments are identical. Thereafter, the UTRs are highly variable both in length and in sequence. Furthermore, apart from the conserved termini, the UTRs of different viruses are highly variable. We previously generated recombinant BUNV carrying the minimal UTRs on all three segments that were attenuated for growth in cell culture. Following serial passage of these viruses, the viruses acquired increased fitness, and amino acid changes were observed to accumulate in the viral polymerase (L protein) of most mutant viruses, with the vast majority of the amino acid changes occurring in the C-terminal region. The function of this domain within L remains unknown, but by using a minigenome assay we showed that it might be involved in UTR recognition. Moreover, we identified an amino acid mutation within the polymerase that, when introduced into an otherwise wild-type BUNV, resulted in a virus with a temperature-sensitive phenotype. Viruses carrying temperature-sensitive mutations are good candidates for the design of live attenuated vaccines. We suggest that a combination of stable deletions of the UTRs together with the introduction of temperature-sensitive mutations in both the nucleocapsid and the polymerase could be used to design live attenuated vaccines against serious pathogens within the family Bunyaviridae. Virus growth in tissue culture can be attenuated by introduction of mutations in both coding and noncoding sequences. We generated attenuated Bunyamwera viruses by deleting sequences within both the 3' and 5' untranslated regions (UTR) on each genome segment and showed that the viruses regained fitness following serial passage in cell culture. The fitter viruses had acquired amino acid changes predominantly in the C-terminal domain of the viral polymerase (L protein), and by using minigenome assays we showed that the mutant polymerases were better adapted to recognizing the mutant UTRs. We suggest that deletions within the UTRs should be incorporated along with other specific mutations, including deletion of the major virulence gene encoding the NSs protein and introduction of temperature-sensitive mutations, in the design of attenuated bunyaviruses that could have potential as vaccines.