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J Virol. 2013 May;87(10):5970-84. doi: 10.1128/JVI.03326-12. Epub 2013 Mar 20.

A tyrosine-to-histidine switch at position 18 of the Ross River virus E2 glycoprotein is a determinant of virus fitness in disparate hosts.

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Department of Microbiology, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Aurora, Colorado, USA.


Arthritogenic alphaviruses are human pathogens maintained in nature through alternating replication in vertebrates and mosquitoes. Using chimeric viruses, we previously reported that replacement of the PE2 coding region of the T48 strain of Ross River virus (RRV-T48) with that from the attenuated DC5692 strain, which differ by 7 amino acids, resulted in an attenuated disease phenotype in a mouse model of RRV-induced rheumatic disease. Here, we demonstrate that introduction of one of these amino acid differences, a tyrosine (Y)-to-histidine (H) change at position 18 of the E2 glycoprotein (E2 Y18H), into the RRV-T48 genetic background was sufficient to generate a virus that caused dramatically less severe musculoskeletal disease in mice. The attenuated phenotype of RRV-T48 E2 Y18H was associated with reduced viral loads in musculoskeletal tissues, reduced viremia, and less efficient virus spread. Consistent with these findings, RRV-T48 E2 Y18H replicated less well in mammalian cells in vitro due to significantly reduced PFU released per infected cell. In contrast, RRV-T48 E2 Y18H replicated more efficiently than RRV-T48 in C6/36 mosquito cells. Competition studies confirmed that RRV-T48 E2 Y18H had a fitness advantage in mosquito cells and a fitness disadvantage in mammalian cells. Interestingly, all sequenced Ross River viruses encode either a tyrosine or a histidine at E2 position 18, and this holds true for other alphaviruses in the Semliki Forest antigenic complex. Taken together, these findings suggest that a tyrosine-to-histidine switch at E2 position 18 functions as a regulator of RRV fitness in vertebrate and invertebrate cells.

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