Chikungunya virus 3' untranslated region: adaptation to mosquitoes and a population bottleneck as major evolutionary forces

PLoS Pathog. 2013;9(8):e1003591. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1003591. Epub 2013 Aug 29.


The 3' untranslated genome region (UTR) of arthropod-borne viruses is characterized by enriched direct repeats (DRs) and stem-loop structures. Despite many years of theoretical and experimental study, on-going positive selection on the 3'UTR had never been observed in 'real-time,' and the role of the arbovirus 3'UTR remains poorly understood. We observed a lineage-specific 3'UTR sequence pattern in all available Asian lineage of the mosquito-borne alphavirus, chikungunya virus (CHIKV) (1958-2009), including complicated mutation and duplication patterns of the long DRs. Given that a longer genome is usually associated with less efficient replication, we hypothesized that the fixation of these genetic changes in the Asian lineage 3'UTR was due to their beneficial effects on adaptation to vectors or hosts. Using reverse genetic methods, we examined the functional importance of each direct repeat. Our results suggest that adaptation to mosquitoes, rather than to mammalian hosts, is a major evolutionary force on the CHIKV 3'UTR. Surprisingly, the Asian 3'UTR appeared to be inferior to its predicted ancestral sequence for replication in both mammals and mosquitoes, suggesting that its fixation in Asia was not a result of directional selection. Rather, it may have resulted from a population bottleneck during its introduction from Africa to Asia. We propose that this introduction of a 3'UTR with deletions led to genetic drift and compensatory mutations associated with the loss of structural/functional constraints, followed by two independent beneficial duplications and fixation due to positive selection. Our results provide further evidence that the limited epidemic potential of the Asian CHIKV strains resulted from founder effects that reduced its fitness for efficient transmission by mosquitoes there.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • 3' Untranslated Regions*
  • Alphavirus Infections / genetics
  • Alphavirus Infections / metabolism
  • Alphavirus Infections / transmission
  • Alphavirus Infections / virology
  • Animals
  • Anopheles / genetics
  • Anopheles / virology*
  • Asia
  • Cell Line
  • Chikungunya Fever
  • Chikungunya virus / genetics*
  • Chikungunya virus / metabolism
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Genetic Drift*
  • Mice
  • Mutation*


  • 3' Untranslated Regions