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J Virol. 2014 Feb;88(4):2035-46. doi: 10.1128/JVI.02990-13. Epub 2013 Dec 4.

Stable, high-level expression of reporter proteins from improved alphavirus expression vectors to track replication and dissemination during encephalitic and arthritogenic disease.

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Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics and Center for Vaccine Research, The University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.


Engineered alphavirus vectors expressing reporters of infection have been used for a number of years due to their relatively low costs for analysis of virus replication and the capacity to utilize imaging systems for longitudinal measurements of growth within single animals. In general, these vectors have been derived from Old World alphaviruses using a second viral subgenomic promoter to express the transgenes, placed either immediately after the nonstructural proteins or at the 3' end of the viral coding sequences. However, the relevance of these vectors to natural infections is questionable, as they have not been rigorously tested for virulence in vivo in comparison with parental viruses or for the retention of the reporter during replication. Here, we report construction of new expression vectors for two Old World arthritogenic alphaviruses (Sindbis and Chikungunya viruses) and two New World encephalitic alphaviruses (eastern and Venezuelan equine encephalitis viruses) based upon either fusion of the reporter protein in frame within nonstructural protein 3 (nsP3) or insertion of the reporter as a cleavable element between the capsid and PE2 structural proteins. We have compared these with a traditional 3' double subgenomic promoter virus expressing either a large, firefly luciferase (fLuc; 1,650 nucleotides), or small, NanoLuc (nLuc; 513 nucleotides), luminescent reporter protein. Results indicate that the nLuc is substantially more stable than fLuc during repeated rounds of infection regardless of the transgene location. However, the capsid-PE2 insertion and nsP3 fusion viruses exhibit the most authentic mimicking of parental virus infection regardless of expressed protein. IMPORTANCE As more antiviral therapeutics and vaccines are developed, rapid and accurate in vivo modeling of their efficacy will be required. However, current alphavirus vectors expressing reporters of infection have not been extensively tested for accurate mimicking of the infection characteristics of unmodified parental viruses. Additionally, use of in vivo imaging systems detecting light emitted from luciferase reporters can significantly decrease costs associated with efficacy studies by minimizing numbers of animals. Herein we report development and testing of new expression vectors for Sindbis, Chikungunya, and eastern and Venezuelan equine encephalitis viruses and demonstrate that a small (∼500-nucleotide) reporter gene (NanoLuc; Promega) is very stable and causes a disease severity similar to that caused by unmodified parental viruses. In contrast, expression of larger reporters is very rapidly lost with virus replication and can be significantly attenuating. The utility of NanoLuc for in vivo imaging is also demonstrated.

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