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Flaviviruses, such as Zika virus, yellow fever virus, dengue virus, and West Nile virus (WNV), are a serious concern for human health. Flaviviruses produce an abundant noncoding subgenomic flavivirus RNA (sfRNA) in infected cells. sfRNA results from stalling of the host 5=-3= exoribonuclease XRN1/Pacman on conserved RNA structures in the 3= untranslated region (UTR) of the viral genomic RNA. sfRNA production is conserved in insect-specific, mosquito-borne, and tick-borne flaviviruses and flaviviruses with no known vector, suggesting a pivotal role for sfRNA in the flavivirus life cycle. Here, we investigated the function of sfRNA during WNV infection of Culex pipiens mosquitoes and evaluated its role in determining vector competence. An sfRNA1- deficient WNV was generated that displayed growth kinetics similar to those of wild-type WNV in both RNA interference (RNAi)-competent and -compromised mosquito cell lines. Small-RNA deep sequencing of WNV-infected mosquitoes indicated an active small interfering RNA (siRNA)-based antiviral response for both the wild-type and sfRNA1-deficient viruses. Additionally, we provide the first evidence that sfRNA is an RNAi substrate in vivo. Two reproducible small-RNA hot spots within the 3= UTR/sfRNA of the wild-type virus mapped to RNA stem-loops SL-III and 3= SL, which stick out of the three-dimensional (3D) sfRNA structure model. Importantly, we demonstrate that sfRNA-deficient WNV displays significantly decreased infection and transmission rates in vivo when administered via the blood meal. Finally, we show that transmission and infection rates are not affected by sfRNA after intrathoracic injection, thereby identifying sfRNA as a key driver to overcome the mosquito midgut infection barrier. This is the first report to describe a key biological function of sfRNA for flavivirus infection of the arthropod vector, providing an explanation for the strict conservation of sfRNA production.
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