Bunyaviruses have a tripartite negative-sense RNA genome. Due to the segmented nature of these viruses, if two closely related viruses coinfect the same host or vector cell, it is possible that RNA segments from either of the two parental viruses will be incorporated into progeny virions to give reassortant viruses. Little is known about the ability of tick-borne phleboviruses to reassort. The present study describes the development of minigenome assays for the tick-borne viruses Uukuniemi phlebovirus (UUKV) and Heartland phlebovirus (HRTV). We used these minigenome assays in conjunction with the existing minigenome system of severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome (SFTS) phlebovirus (SFTSV) to assess the abilities of viral N and L proteins to recognize, transcribe, and replicate the M segment-based minigenome of a heterologous virus. The highest minigenome activity was detected with the M segment-based minigenomes of cognate viruses. However, our findings indicate that several combinations utilizing N and L proteins of heterologous viruses resulted in M segment minigenome activity. This suggests that the M segment untranslated regions (UTRs) are recognized as functional promoters of transcription and replication by the N and L proteins of related viruses. Further, virus-like particle assays demonstrated that HRTV glycoproteins can package UUKV and SFTSV S and L segment-based minigenomes. Taken together, these results suggest that coinfection with these viruses could lead to the generation of viable reassortant progeny. Thus, the tools developed in this study could aid in understanding the role of genome reassortment in the evolution of these emerging pathogens in an experimental setting.IMPORTANCE In recent years, there has been a large expansion in the number of emerging tick-borne viruses that are assigned to the Phlebovirus genus. Bunyaviruses have a tripartite segmented genome, and infection of the same host cell by two closely related bunyaviruses can, in theory, result in eight progeny viruses with different genome segment combinations. We used genome analogues expressing reporter genes to assess the abilities of Phlebovirus nucleocapsid protein and RNA-dependent RNA polymerase to recognize the untranslated region of a genome segment of a related phlebovirus, and we used virus-like particle assays to assess whether viral glycoproteins can package genome analogues of related phleboviruses. Our results provide strong evidence that these emerging pathogens could reassort their genomes if they were to meet in nature in an infected host or vector. This reassortment process could result in viruses with new pathogenic properties.
Keywords: Phlebovirus; SFTS phlebovirus; minigenome; negative-strand RNA virus; reverse genetic analysis.
Copyright © 2019 Rezelj et al.