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Viral exposure—the complete history
In addition to causing illness, viruses leave indelible footprints behind, because infection permanently alters the immune system. Blood tests that detect antiviral antibodies can provide information about both past and present viral exposures. Typically, such tests measure only one virus at a time. Using a synthetic representation of all human viral peptides, Xu et al. developed a blood test that identifies antibodies against all known human viruses. They studied blood samples from nearly 600 people of differing ages and geographic locations and found that most had been exposed to about 10 viral species over their lifetime. Despite differences in the rates of exposure to specific viruses, the antibody responses in most individuals targeted the same viral epitopes.
Science, this issue 10.1126/science.aaa0698
The collection of viruses found to infect humans can have profound effects on human health. In addition to directly causing acute or chronic illness, viral infection can alter host immunity in more subtle ways, leaving an indelible footprint on the immune system. This interplay between virome and host immunity has been implicated in the pathogenesis of complex diseases such as type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and asthma. Despite the growing appreciation for the importance of interactions between the virome and host, a comprehensive method to systematically characterize these interactions has yet to be developed.
Current serological methods to detect viral infections are predominantly limited to testing one pathogen at a time and are therefore used primarily to address specific clinical hypotheses. A method that could simultaneously detect responses to all human viruses would allow hypothesis-free analysis to detect associations between past viral infections and particular diseases or population structures. Humoral responses to infection typically arise within 10 to 14 days of initial exposure and can persist over years or decades, thus providing a rich source of the history of pathogen encounters. In this work, we present VirScan, a high-throughput method that allows comprehensive analysis of antiviral antibodies in human sera. VirScan uses DNA microarray synthesis and bacteriophage display to create a uniform, synthetic representation of peptide epitopes comprising the human virome. Immunoprecipitation and high-throughput DNA sequencing reveal the peptides recognized by antibodies in the sample. The analysis requires less than 1 μl of blood.
We screened sera from 569 human donors across four continents, assaying a total of over 108 antibody-peptide interactions for reactivity to 206 human viral species and >1000 strains. We found that VirScan’s performance in detecting known infections and distinguishing between exposures to related viruses is comparable to that of classical serum antibody tests for single viruses. We detected antibodies to an average of 10 viral species per person and 84 species in at least two individuals. Our approach maps antibody targets at 56–amino acid resolution, and our results nearly double the number of previously established viral B cell epitopes. Although rates of specific virus exposure varied depending on age, HIV status, and geographic location of the donor, we observed strong similarities in antibody responses across individuals. In particular, we found multiple instances of single peptides that were recurrently recognized by antibodies in the vast majority of donors. We performed tiling mutagenesis and found that these antibody responses targeted substantially conserved “public epitopes” for each virus, suggesting that antibodies with highly similar specificities, and possibly structures, are elicited across individuals.
VirScan is a method that enables human virome-wide exploration, at the epitope level, of immune responses in large numbers of individuals. We have demonstrated its effectiveness for determining viral exposure and characterizing viral B cell epitopes in high throughput and at high resolution. Our preliminary studies have revealed intriguing general properties of the human immune system, both at the individual and the population scale. VirScan may prove to be an important tool for uncovering the effect of host-virome interactions on human health and disease and could easily be expanded to include new viruses as they are discovered, as well as other human pathogens, such as bacteria, fungi, and protozoa.
The human virome plays important roles in health and immunity. However, current methods for detecting viral infections and antiviral responses have limited throughput and coverage. Here, we present VirScan, a high-throughput method to comprehensively analyze antiviral antibodies using immunoprecipitation and massively parallel DNA sequencing of a bacteriophage library displaying proteome-wide peptides from all human viruses. We assayed over 108 antibody-peptide interactions in 569 humans across four continents, nearly doubling the number of previously established viral epitopes. We detected antibodies to an average of 10 viral species per person and 84 species in at least two individuals. Although rates of specific virus exposure were heterogeneous across populations, antibody responses targeted strongly conserved “public epitopes” for each virus, suggesting that they may elicit highly similar antibodies. VirScan is a powerful approach for studying interactions between the virome and the immune system.