The dinucleotide composition of the Zika virus genome is shaped by conflicting evolutionary pressures in mammalian hosts and mosquito vectors

Jelke J. Fros*, Imke Visser, Bing Tang, Kexin Yan, Eri Nakayama, Tessa M. Visser, Constantianus J.M. Koenraadt, Monique M. van Oers, Gorben P. Pijlman, Andreas Suhrbier, Peter Simmonds

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


Most vertebrate RNA viruses show pervasive suppression of CpG and UpA dinucleotides, closely resembling the dinucleotide composition of host cell transcriptomes. In contrast, CpG suppression is absent in both invertebrate mRNA and RNA viruses that exclusively infect arthropods. Arthropod-borne (arbo) viruses are transmitted between vertebrate hosts by invertebrate vectors and thus encounter potentially conflicting evolutionary pressures in the different cytoplasmic environments. Using a newly developed Zika virus (ZIKV) model, we have investigated how demands for CpG suppression in vertebrate cells can be reconciled with potentially quite different compositional requirements in invertebrates and how this affects ZIKV replication and transmission. Mutant viruses with synonymously elevated CpG or UpA dinucleotide frequencies showed attenuated replication in vertebrate cell lines, which was rescued by knockout of the zinc-finger antiviral protein (ZAP). Conversely, in mosquito cells, ZIKV mutants with elevated CpG dinucleotide frequencies showed substantially enhanced replication compared to wild type. Host-driven effects on virus replication attenuation and enhancement were even more apparent in mouse and mosquito models. Infections with CpG- or UpA-high ZIKV mutants in mice did not cause typical ZIKV-induced tissue damage and completely protected mice during subsequent challenge with wild-type virus, which demonstrates their potential as live-attenuated vaccines. In contrast, the CpG-high mutants displayed enhanced replication in Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and a larger proportion of mosquitoes carried infectious virus in their saliva. These findings show that mosquito cells are also capable of discriminating RNA based on dinucleotide composition. However, the evolutionary pressure on the CpG dinucleotides of viral genomes in arthropod vectors directly opposes the pressure present in vertebrate host cells, which provides evidence that an adaptive compromise is required for arbovirus transmission. This suggests that the genome composition of arbo flaviviruses is crucial to maintain the balance between high-level replication in the vertebrate host and persistent replication in the mosquito vector.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere3001201
JournalPloS Biology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 19 Apr 2021


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