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BMC Bioinformatics. 2017 Dec 28;18(Suppl 14):471. doi: 10.1186/s12859-017-1894-3.

Suggested mechanisms for Zika virus causing microcephaly: what do the genomes tell us?

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Department of Biomedical Informatics, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock, AR, USA.
Molecular Microbiology and Genomics Consultants, Zotzenheim, Germany.
Department of Biomedical Informatics, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock, AR, USA.
Department of Biomedical Informatics, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock, AR, USA.



Zika virus (ZIKV) is an emerging human pathogen. Since its arrival in the Western hemisphere, from Africa via Asia, it has become a serious threat to pregnant women, causing microcephaly and other neuropathies in developing fetuses. The mechanisms behind these teratogenic effects are unknown, although epidemiological evidence suggests that microcephaly is not associated with the original, African lineage of ZIKV. The sequences of 196 published ZIKV genomes were used to assess whether recently proposed mechanistic explanations for microcephaly are supported by molecular level changes that may have increased its virulence since the virus left Africa. For this we performed phylogenetic, recombination, adaptive evolution and tetramer frequency analyses, and compared protein sequences for the presence of protease cleavage sites, Pfam domains, glycosylation sites, signal peptides, trans-membrane protein domains, and phosphorylation sites.


Recombination events within or between Asian and Brazilian lineages were not observed, and likewise there were no differences in protease cleavage, glycosylation sites, signal peptides or trans-membrane domains between African and Brazilian strains. The frequency of Retinoic Acid Response Element (RARE) sequences was increased in Brazilian strains. Genetic adaptation was also apparent by tetramer signatures that had undergone major changes in the past but has stabilized in the Brazilian lineage despite subsequent geographic spread, suggesting the viral population presently propagates in the same host species in various regions. Evidence for selection pressure was recognized for several amino acid sites in the Brazilian lineage compared to the African lineage, mainly in nonstructural proteins, especially protein NS4B. A number of these positively selected mutations resulted in an increased potential to be phosphorylated in the Brazilian lineage compared to the African linage, which may have increased their potential to interfere with neural fetal development.


ZIKV seems to have adapted to a limited number of hosts, including humans, during which its virulence increased. Its protein NS4B, together with NS4A, has recently been shown to inhibit Akt-mTOR signaling in human fetal neural stem cells, a key pathway for brain development. We hypothesize that positive selection of novel phosphorylation sites in the protein NS4B of the Brazilian lineage could interfere with phosphorylation of Akt and mTOR, impairing Akt-mTOR signaling and this may result in an increased risk for developmental neuropathies.


Comparative genomics; Microcephaly; Phosphorylation; Positive selection; Zika virus

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