A single mutation in the prM protein of Zika virus contributes to fetal microcephaly

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Science  17 Nov 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6365, pp. 933-936
DOI: 10.1126/science.aam7120

Mutation for microcephaly

Zika virus infections in humans have been known since 1947. Microcephaly and neuropathologies associated with Zika have only been reported recently, most prevalently in the Americas. Yuan et al. investigated recent stable mutations in the virus genome and engineered them into a low-virulence ancestral strain (see the Perspective by Screaton and Mongkolsapaya). A single amino acid substitution (serine to asparagine, S139N) in the viral precursor membrane protein exacerbated symptoms in pregnant mice. The reverse mutation (N139S) was less virulent. The S139N mutation arose in 2013 in French Polynesia before the virus jumped to Brazil in 2015. In vitro, this amino acid change made the virus more infectious for mouse and human neural progenitor cells and promoted apoptosis. The terrible sequelae of infection during pregnancy could thus be the result of a simple viral mutation.

Science, this issue p. 933; see also p. 863


Zika virus (ZIKV) has evolved into a global health threat because of its unexpected causal link to microcephaly. Phylogenetic analysis reveals that contemporary epidemic strains have accumulated multiple substitutions from their Asian ancestor. Here we show that a single serine-to-asparagine substitution [Ser139→Asn139 (S139N)] in the viral polyprotein substantially increased ZIKV infectivity in both human and mouse neural progenitor cells (NPCs) and led to more severe microcephaly in the mouse fetus, as well as higher mortality rates in neonatal mice. Evolutionary analysis indicates that the S139N substitution arose before the 2013 outbreak in French Polynesia and has been stably maintained during subsequent spread to the Americas. This functional adaption makes ZIKV more virulent to human NPCs, thus contributing to the increased incidence of microcephaly in recent ZIKV epidemics.

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