Subgenomic flavivirus RNA binds the mosquito DEAD/H-box helicase ME31B and determines Zika virus transmission by Aedes aegypti

Göertz, Giel P.; Bree, Joyce W.M. van; Hiralal, Anwar; Fernhout, Bas M.; Steffens, Carmen; Boeren, Sjef; Visser, Tessa M.; Vogels, Chantal B.F.; Abbo, Sandra R.; Fros, Jelke J.; Koenraadt, Constantianus J.M.; Oers, Monique M. van; Pijlman, Gorben P.


Zika virus (ZIKV) is an arthropod-borne flavivirus predominantly transmitted by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and poses a global human health threat. All flaviviruses, including those that exclusively replicate in mosquitoes, produce a highly abundant, noncoding subgenomic flavivirus RNA (sfRNA) in infected cells, which implies an important function of sfRNA during mosquito infection. Currently, the role of sfRNA in flavivirus transmission by mosquitoes is not well understood. Here, we demonstrate that an sfRNA-deficient ZIKV (ZIKVΔSF1) replicates similar to wild-type ZIKV in mosquito cell culture but is severely attenuated in transmission by Ae. aegypti after an infectious blood meal, with 5% saliva-positive mosquitoes for ZIKVΔSF1 vs. 31% for ZIKV. Furthermore, viral titers in the mosquito saliva were lower for ZIKVΔSF1 as compared to ZIKV. Comparison of mosquito infection via infectious blood meals and intrathoracic injections showed that sfRNA is important for ZIKV to overcome the mosquito midgut barrier and to promote virus accumulation in the saliva. Next-generation sequencing of infected mosquitoes showed that viral small-interfering RNAs were elevated upon ZIKVΔSF1 as compared to ZIKV infection. RNA-affinity purification followed by mass spectrometry analysis uncovered that sfRNA specifically interacts with a specific set of Ae. aegypti proteins that are normally associated with RNA turnover and protein translation. The DEAD/H-box helicase ME31B showed the highest affinity for sfRNA and displayed antiviral activity against ZIKV in Ae. aegypti cells. Based on these results, we present a mechanistic model in which sfRNA sequesters ME31B to promote flavivirus replication and virion production to facilitate transmission by mosquitoes.