Compared with other flaviviruses, Zika virus (ZIKV) is uniquely associated with congenital diseases in pregnant women. One recent study reported that (i) ZIKV has higher thermostability than dengue virus (DENV [a flavivirus closely related to ZIKV]), which might contribute to the disease outcome; (ii) the higher thermostability of ZIKV could arise from an extended loop structure in domain III of the viral envelope (E) protein and an extra hydrogen-bond interaction between E molecules (V. A. Kostyuchenko, E. X. Y. Lim, S. Zhang, G. Fibriansah, T.-S. Ng, J. S. G. Ooi, J. Shi, and S.-M. Lok, Nature 533:425–428, 2016, https://doi.org/10.1038/nature17994). Here we report the functional analysis of the structural information in the context of complete ZIKV and DENV-2 virions. Swapping the prM-E genes between ZIKV and DENV-2 switched the thermostability of the chimeric viruses, identifying the prM-E proteins as the major determinants for virion thermostability. Shortening the extended loop of the E protein by 1 amino acid was lethal for ZIKV assembly/release. Mutations (Q350I and T351V) that abolished the extra hydrogen-bond interaction between the E proteins did not reduce ZIKV thermostability, indicating that the extra interaction does not increase the thermostability. Interestingly, mutant T351V was attenuated in A129 mice defective in type I interferon receptors, even though the virus retained the wild-type thermostability. Furthermore, we found that a chimeric ZIKV with the DENV-2 prM-E and a chimeric DENV-2 with the ZIKV prM-E were highly attenuated in A129 mice; these chimeric viruses were highly immunogenic and protective against DENV-2 and ZIKV challenge, respectively. These results indicate the potential of these chimeric viruses for vaccine development.IMPORTANCE Analysis of a recently observed high-resolution structure of ZIKV led to a hypothesis that its unusual stability may contribute to the associated, unique disease outcomes. Here we performed a functional analysis to demonstrate that viral prM-E genes are the main determinants for the high stability of ZIKV. The extra hydrogen-bond interaction (observed in the high-resolution structure) between ZIKV E proteins did not enhance virion stability, whereas the extended loop of E protein (CD loop in domain III) was essential for ZIKV assembly. More importantly, we found that a chimeric ZIKV with DENV-2 prM-E genes and a chimeric DENV-2 with ZIKV prM-E genes were highly attenuated in A129 mice. Mice immunized with these chimeric viruses generated robust neutralizing antibody responses and were fully protected from DENV-2 and ZIKV challenge, respectively, indicating that these chimeric viruses could be further developed as vaccine candidates.
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