Exosomes mediate Zika virus transmission through SMPD3 neutral Sphingomyelinase in cortical neurons

Wenshuo Zhou, Michael Woodson, Michael B. Sherman, Girish Neelakanta, Hameeda Sultana

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

75 Scopus citations


The harmful effects of ZIKA virus (ZIKV) infection are reflected by severe neurological manifestations such as microcephaly in neonates and other complications associated with Guillain-Barré syndrome in adults. The transmission dynamics of ZIKV in or between neurons, or within the developing brains of the foetuses are not fully understood. Using primary cultures of murine cortical neurons, we show that ZIKV uses exosomes as mediators of viral transmission between neurons. Cryo-electron microscopy showed heterogeneous population of neuronal exosomes with a size range of 30–200 nm. Increased production of exosomes from neuronal cells was noted upon ZIKV infection. Neuronal exosomes contained both ZIKV viral RNA and protein(s) that were highly infectious to naïve cells. RNaseA and neutralizing antibodies treatment studies suggest the presence of viral RNA/proteins inside exosomes. Exosomes derived from time- and dose-dependent incubations showed increasing viral loads suggesting higher packaging and delivery of ZIKV RNA and proteins. Furthermore, we noted that ZIKV induced both activity and gene expression of neutral Sphingomyelinase (nSMase)-2/SMPD3, an important molecule that regulates production and release of exosomes. Silencing of SMPD3 in neurons resulted in reduced viral burden and transmission through exosomes. Treatment with SMPD3 specific inhibitor GW4869, significantly reduced ZIKV loads in both cortical neurons and in exosomes derived from these neuronal cells. Taken together, our results suggest that ZIKV modulates SMPD3 activity in cortical neurons for its infection and transmission through exosomes perhaps leading to severe neuronal death that may result in neurological manifestations such as microcephaly in the developing embryonic brains.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)307-326
Number of pages20
JournalEmerging Microbes and Infections
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2019


  • Exosomes
  • GW4869
  • ZIKA virus
  • cortical neurons
  • cryo-EM
  • neutral Sphingomyelinase
  • transmission

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Drug Discovery
  • Infectious Diseases
  • Epidemiology
  • Virology
  • Parasitology
  • Microbiology
  • Immunology


Dive into the research topics of 'Exosomes mediate Zika virus transmission through SMPD3 neutral Sphingomyelinase in cortical neurons'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this