Many flaviviruses are significant human pathogens that cause global public health threats. Developing research tools for studying and diagnosing these pathogens is a top priority. Reporter flaviviruses are useful tools for studying viral pathogenesis, diagnosing disease, and screening antiviral compounds. However, the stability of reporter flaviviruses has been challenged by viral RNA recombination, leading to deletion of the engineered reporter gene during viral replication. The instability of reporter viruses has limited their application to research and countermeasure development. Thus, new approaches to overcome the instability of reporter flaviviruses are critically needed to advance the flavivirus field.
To create a stable flavivirus bearing a reporter gene, we engineered mutations in the viral capsid gene that are rendered virus-lethal upon recombination. Thus, only non-recombined reporter virus propagates. We tested this strategy using Zika virus (ZIKV) bearing a nano-luciferase (NanoLuc) gene and passaged both virus with capsid mutations and virus without mutations.
The recombination-dependent lethal mutations succeeded in stabilizing the NanoLuc ZIKV through ten passages, while WT reporter virus showed instability as early as five passages. The stability of NanoLuc ZIKV was supported by RT-PCR, sequencing, focus forming assay, and luciferase assay. The success of this method was reconfirmed by also establishing a stable NanoLuc Yellow Fever 17D virus, indicating that the recombination-dependent lethal approach can be applied to other flaviviruses. To demonstrate the utility of the stable reporter viruses, we showed that NanoLuc ZIKV and YFV17D could be used to measure neutralizing antibody titers with a turnaround time as short as four hours. Importantly, the neutralizing antibody titers derived from the reporter virus assay were equivalent to those derived from the conventional plaque assay, indicating the new assay maintains the gold standard of serology testing. Furthermore, using a known inhibitor, we showed that the reporter viruses could be reliably used for antiviral evaluation.
The study has developed a recombination-dependent lethal approach to produce stable reporter flaviviruses that may be used for rapid serodiagnosis, trans-gene delivery, vaccine evaluation, and antiviral discovery.
National Institute of Health, Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation; John S. Dunn Foundation; Amon G. Carter Foundation; Gillson Longenbaugh Foundation; Summerfield G. Roberts Foundation.

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