The Zika virus (ZIKV) was first isolated in Africa in 1947. It was shown to be a mild virus that had limited threat to humans. However, the resurgence of the ZIKV in the most recent Brazil outbreak surprised us because it causes severe human congenital and neurologic disorders including microcephaly in newborns and Guillain-Barré syndrome in adults. Studies showed that the epidemic ZIKV strains are phenotypically different from the historic strains, suggesting that the epidemic ZIKV has acquired mutations associated with the altered viral pathogenicity. However, what genetic changes are responsible for the changed viral pathogenicity remains largely unknown. One of our early studies suggested that the ZIKV structural proteins contribute in part to the observed virologic differences. The objectives of this study were to compare the historic African MR766 ZIKV strain with two epidemic Brazilian strains (BR15 and ICD) for their abilities to initiate viral infection and to confer neurocytopathic effects in the human brain's SNB-19 glial cells, and further to determine which part of the ZIKV structural proteins are responsible for the observed differences. Our results show that the historic African (MR766) and epidemic Brazilian (BR15 and ICD) ZIKV strains are different in viral attachment to host neuronal cells, viral permissiveness and replication, as well as in the induction of cytopathic effects. The analysis of chimeric viruses, generated between the MR766 and BR15 molecular clones, suggests that the ZIKV E protein correlates with the viral attachment, and the C-prM region contributes to the permissiveness and ZIKV-induced cytopathic effects. The expression of adenoviruses, expressing prM and its processed protein products, shows that the prM protein and its cleaved Pr product, but not the mature M protein, induces apoptotic cell death in the SNB-19 cells. We found that the Pr region, which resides on the N-terminal side of prM protein, is responsible for prM-induced apoptotic cell death. Mutational analysis further identified four amino-acid residues that have an impact on the ability of prM to induce apoptosis. Together, the results of this study show that the difference of ZIKV-mediated viral pathogenicity, between the historic and epidemic strains, contributed in part the functions of the structural prM-E proteins.
Keywords: Zika virus; apoptosis; chimeric viruses; cytopathic effects; human brain glial cells; mutagenesis; prM-E proteins; viral pathogenicity; viral permissiveness; viral replication; viral survival; virus attachment.