Two Sides of a Coin: a Zika Virus Mutation Selected in Pregnant Rhesus Macaques Promotes Fetal Infection in Mice but at a Cost of Reduced Fitness in Nonpregnant Macaques and Diminished Transmissibility by Vectors

J Virol. 2020 Nov 23;94(24):e01605-20. doi: 10.1128/JVI.01605-20. Print 2020 Nov 23.


Although fetal death is now understood to be a severe outcome of congenital Zika syndrome, the role of viral genetics is still unclear. We sequenced Zika virus (ZIKV) from a rhesus macaque fetus that died after inoculation and identified a single intrahost substitution, M1404I, in the ZIKV polyprotein, located in nonstructural protein 2B (NS2B). Targeted sequencing flanking position 1404 in 9 additional macaque mothers and their fetuses identified M1404I at a subconsensus frequency in the majority (5 of 9, 56%) of animals and some of their fetuses. Despite its repeated presence in pregnant macaques, M1404I has occurred rarely in humans since 2015. Since the primary ZIKV transmission cycle is human-mosquito-human, mutations in one host must be retained in the alternate host to be perpetuated. We hypothesized that ZIKV I1404 increases viral fitness in nonpregnant macaques and pregnant mice but is less efficiently transmitted by vectors, explaining its low frequency in humans during outbreaks. By examining competitive fitness relative to that of ZIKV M1404, we observed that ZIKV I1404 produced lower viremias in nonpregnant macaques and was a weaker competitor in tissues. In pregnant wild-type mice, ZIKV I1404 increased the magnitude and rate of placental infection and conferred fetal infection, in contrast to ZIKV M1404, which was not detected in fetuses. Although infection and dissemination rates were not different, Aedes aegypti mosquitoes transmitted ZIKV I1404 more poorly than ZIKV M1404. Our data highlight the complexity of arbovirus mutation-fitness dynamics and suggest that intrahost ZIKV mutations capable of augmenting fitness in pregnant vertebrates may not necessarily spread efficiently via mosquitoes during epidemics.IMPORTANCE Although Zika virus infection of pregnant women can result in congenital Zika syndrome, the factors that cause the syndrome in some but not all infected mothers are still unclear. We identified a mutation that was present in some ZIKV genomes in experimentally inoculated pregnant rhesus macaques and their fetuses. Although we did not find an association between the presence of the mutation and fetal death, we performed additional studies with ZIKV with the mutation in nonpregnant macaques, pregnant mice, and mosquitoes. We observed that the mutation increased the ability of the virus to infect mouse fetuses but decreased its capacity to produce high levels of virus in the blood of nonpregnant macaques and to be transmitted by mosquitoes. This study shows that mutations in mosquito-borne viruses like ZIKV that increase fitness in pregnant vertebrates may not spread in outbreaks when they compromise transmission via mosquitoes and fitness in nonpregnant hosts.

Keywords: Zika virus; arbovirus; congenital Zika syndrome; emergence; experimental infection; fitness; flavivirus; mouse; mutation; nonhuman primate.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aedes / virology
  • Animals
  • Chlorocebus aethiops
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mosquito Vectors / virology
  • Mutation*
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications, Infectious / virology*
  • Vero Cells
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins
  • Viremia
  • Zika Virus / genetics*
  • Zika Virus / growth & development
  • Zika Virus Infection / virology*


  • NS2B protein, flavivirus
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins