Emerging viruses impose global threats to animal and human populations and may bear novel genes with limited homology to known sequences, necessitating the development of novel approaches to infer and test protein functions. This challenge is dramatically evident in tilapia lake virus (TiLV), an emerging "orthomyxo-like" virus that threatens the global tilapia aquaculture and food security of millions of people. The majority of TiLV proteins have no homology to known sequences, impeding functionality assessments. Using a novel bioinformatics approach, we predicted that TiLV's Protein 4 encodes the nucleoprotein, a factor essential for viral RNA replication. Multiple methodologies revealed the expected properties of orthomyxoviral nucleoproteins. A modified yeast three-hybrid assay detected Protein 4-RNA interactions, which were independent of the RNA sequence, and identified specific positively charged residues involved. Protein 4-RNA interactions were uncovered by R-DeeP and XRNAX methodologies. Immunoelectron microscopy found that multiple Protein 4 copies localized along enriched ribonucleoproteins. TiLV RNA from cells and virions coimmunoprecipitated with Protein 4. Immunofluorescence microscopy detected Protein 4 in the cytoplasm and nuclei, and nuclear Protein 4 increased upon CRM1 inhibition, suggesting CRM1-dependent nuclear export of TiLV RNA. Together, these data reveal TiLV's nucleoprotein and highlight the ability to infer protein functionality, including novel RNA-binding proteins, in emerging pathogens. These are important in light of the expected discovery of many unknown viruses and the zoonotic potential of such pathogens. IMPORTANCE Tilapia is an important source of dietary protein, especially in developing countries. Massive losses of tilapia were identified worldwide, risking the food security of millions of people. Tilapia lake virus (TiLV) is an emerging pathogen responsible for these disease outbreaks. TiLV's genome encodes 10 major proteins, 9 of which show no homology to other known viral or cellular proteins, hindering functionality assessment of these proteins. Here, we describe a novel bioinformatics approach to infer the functionality of TiLV proteins, which predicted Protein 4 as the nucleoprotein, a factor essential for viral RNA replication. We provided experimental support for this prediction by applying multiple molecular, biochemical, and imaging approaches. Overall, we illustrate a strategy for functional analyses in viral discovery. The strategy is important in light of the expected discovery of many unknown viruses and the zoonotic potential of such pathogens.
Keywords: RNA-binding protein; emerging virus; nucleoprotein; tilapia lake virus.