Recombinant Tula hantavirus shows reduced fitness but is able to survive in the presence of a parental virus: analysis of consecutive passages in a cell culture
© Plyusnina and Plyusnin; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2005
Received: 01 February 2005
Accepted: 22 February 2005
Published: 22 February 2005
Tula hantavirus carrying recombinant S RNA segment (recTULV) grew in a cell culture to the same titers as the original cell adapted variant but presented no real match to the parental virus. Our data showed that the lower competitiveness of recTULV could not be increased by pre-passaging in the cell culture. Nevertheless, the recombinant virus was able to survive in the presence of the parental virus during five consecutive passages. The observed survival time seems to be sufficient for transmission of newly formed recombinant hantaviruses in nature.
Recombination in RNA viruses serves two main purposes: (i) it generates and spreads advantageous genetic combinations; and (ii) it counters the deleterious effect of mutations that, due to the low fidelity of viral RNA polymerases and lack of proofreading, occur with high frequency . The purging function is, naturally, attributed to the homologous recombination (HRec), i.e. recombination between homologous parental molecules through crossover at homologous sites. HRec was first described for the positive-sense RNA viruses [2, 3] and subsequent studies lead to the widely accepted copy-choice model . HRec was later shown to occur in rotaviruses thus adding double-stranded RNA viruses to the list of viruses capable of recombination . Negative-sense RNA viruses that occupy the largest domain in the virus kingdom until recently were known to undergo non-homologous recombination only, forming either defective genomes, like polymerase "mosaics" of influenza A virus DI-particles  and "copy-backs" of parainfluenza virus  or hybrids between viral and cellular genes  or between different viral genes . The first evidence for HRec in a negative-sense RNA virus has been obtained on hantaviruses [10, 11].
Hantaviruses (genus Hantavirus, family Bunyaviridae) have a tripartite genome comprising the L segment encoding the RNA-polymerase, the M segment encoding two external glycoproteins, and the S segment encoding the nucleocapsid (N) protein . Hantaviruses are maintained in nature in persistently infected rodents, each hantavirus type being predominantly associated with a distinct rodent host species . When transmitted to humans, some hantaviruses cause hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome or hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, whereas other hantaviruses are apathogenic [14, 15]. Persistent infection in natural hosts allows for the simultaneous presence of more than one genetically distinct hantavirus variant in the same rodent. This may result in hantavirus genome reassortment [16, 17] or recombination, as proposed in the above-mentioned study of Sibold et al  who showed a mosaic-like structure of the S RNA segment and the N protein of Tula hantavirus (TULV). Most recently, we have shown transfection-mediated rescue of TULV with recombinant S segment, in which nt 1–332 originate from the cell culture isolate Moravia/Ma5302V/94 (or TULV02, for short) , nt 369–1853 originate from the strain Tula/Ma23/87 , and nt 333–368, that are identical in both variants, can be of either origin. Both M and L segments of the recombinant virus (recTULV) originate from TULV02 . RecTULV was functionally competent but less competitive than TULV02. One reason for the observed lower fitness of the recTULV might be that it was generated in the presence of the wt variant, with which it has to compete, and thus not given enough time to to establish a well balanced, mature quasi-species population. We, therefore, decided to compare fitness of TULV02 with that of recTULV that underwent several passages in cell culture.
Results and discussion
Although relatively short, the observed survival time of the recTULV in the presence of the original variant TUL02 seems to be sufficient for transmission of a recombinant virus, in a hypothetical in vivo situation, from one rodent to another. If transmission is performed in a sampling-like fashion – and this seems to be the case for hantaviruses  – the recombinant would have fair chances to survive. The existence of wt recombinant strains of TULV  supports this way of reasoning. Evidence for the recombination in the hantavirus evolution continues to accumulate [20, 21].
The data presented in this paper show that the recTULV presents no real match to the original cell adapted variant and that the lower fitness of the recombinant virus can not be increased by pre-passaging in cell culture. The observed survival time of the recTULV in the presence of the parental virus seems to be sufficient for transmission of newly formed recombinant hantaviruses in nature.
RecTULV (clone 5) was purified from the mixture it formed with the original variant, TULV02, using two consequent passages under terminal dilutions . After the purification, recTULV underwent three more passages, performed under standard conditions, i.e. without dilution. The presence of recS-RNA on the passages was monitored by RT-PCR and the isolate appeared to have a stable genotype (data not shown). RecTULV formed foci similar in size to those of the original variant and grew to the titers 5 × 103 – 104 FFU/ml.
Vero E6 cells (5 × 106 cells) were infected with the 1:1 mixture of recTULV and TULV02, approximately 104 FFU altogether. After 7–12 days the supernatant (~20 ml) was collected and RNA was extracted from the cells with TriPure™ isolation reagent, Boehringer Mannheim. Aliquots (2 ml) of the supernatant were used to infect fresh cells; the rest was kept at -70°C. The following nine passages were performed in the same way.
Reverse transcription (RT), polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and sequencing
RT was performed with MuLV reverse transcriptase (New England Biolabs); for PCR, AmpliTaq DNA polymerase (Perkin Elmer, Roche Molecular Systems) was used. To monitor the presence of TULV S RNA on passages, RT-PCR was performed with primers VF738 (5'GCCTGAAAAGATTGAGGAGTTCC3'; nt 738–760) and VR855 (5'TTCACGTCCTAAAAGGTAAGCATCA3'; nt 831–855). To monitor the presence of recTULV S RNA, RT-PCR was performed with primers RECF738 (5'GCCAGAGAAGATTGAGGCATTTC3'; nt 738–760) and RECR855 (5'TTCTCTCCCAATTAGGTAAGCATCA3'; nt 831–855). All four primers were perfect matches to the homologous sequences; to the heterologous sequences, the forward primers have five mismatches while the reverse primers have six. Alternatively, complete S segment sequences of both variants of TULV were amplified using a single universal primer  and then either of the two pairs of primers was used in nested PCR. Authenticity of the PCR amplicons was confirmed by direct sequencing using the ABI PRISM Dye Terminator Sequencing kit (Perkin Elmer Applied Biosystems Division).
The authors thank Prof. Åke Lundkvist for fruitful discussion and Prof. Antti Vaheri for general support. This work was supported by the research grants RFA915 and 202012 from the Academy of Finland.
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