Journal of virology

Virulent poxviruses inhibit DNA sensing by preventing STING activation.

PMID 29491158


Cytosolic recognition of DNA has emerged as a critical cellular mechanism of host immune activation upon pathogen invasion. The central cytosolic DNA sensor cGAS activates STING, which is phosphorylated, dimerises and translocates from the ER to a perinuclear region to mediate IRF-3 activation. Poxviruses are dsDNA viruses replicating in the cytosol and hence likely to trigger cytosolic DNA sensing. Here we investigated the activation of innate immune signalling by 4 different strains of the prototypic poxvirus vaccinia virus (VACV) in a cell line proficient in DNA sensing. Infection with the attenuated VACV strain MVA activated IRF-3 via cGAS and STING, and accordingly STING dimerised and was phosphorylated during MVA infection. Conversely, VACV strains Copenhagen and Western Reserve inhibited STING dimerisation and phosphorylation during infection and in response to transfected DNA and cGAMP, thus efficiently suppressing DNA sensing and IRF-3 activation. A VACV deletion mutant lacking protein C16, thought to be the only viral DNA sensing inhibitor acting upstream of STING, retained the ability to block STING activation. Similar inhibition of DNA-induced STING activation was also observed for cowpox and ectromelia viruses. Our data demonstrate that virulent poxviruses possess mechanisms for targeting DNA sensing at the level of the cGAS-STING axis and that these mechanisms do not operate in replication-defective strains such as MVA. These findings shed light on the role of cellular DNA sensing in poxvirus-host interactions and will open new avenues to determine its impact on VACV immunogenicity and virulence.IMPORTANCE Poxviruses are dsDNA viruses infecting a wide range of vertebrates and include the causative agent of smallpox (variola virus) and its vaccine vaccinia virus (VACV). Despite smallpox eradication VACV remains of interest as a therapeutic. Attenuated strains are popular vaccine candidates, whereas replication-competent strains are emerging as efficient oncolytics in virotherapy. The successful therapeutic use of VACV depends on a detailed understanding of its ability to modulate host innate immune responses. DNA sensing is a critical cellular mechanism for pathogen detection and activation of innate immunity that is centrally coordinated by the ER-resident protein STING. Here STING is shown to mediate immune activation in response to MVA, but not to virulent VACV strains or other virulent poxviruses, which prevent STING activation and DNA sensing during infection and after DNA transfection. These results provide new insights into poxvirus immune evasion and have implications in the rational design of VACV-based therapeutics.