A specific sequence in the genome of respiratory syncytial virus regulates the generation of copy-back defective viral genomes

by Yan Sun, Eun Ji Kim, Sébastien A. Felt, Louis J. Taylor, Divyansh Agarwal, Gregory R. Grant, Carolina B. López

Defective viral genomes of the copy-back type (cbDVGs) are the primary initiators of the antiviral immune response during infection with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) both in vitro and in vivo. However, the mechanism governing cbDVG generation remains unknown, thereby limiting our ability to manipulate cbDVG content in order to modulate the host response to infection. Here we report a specific genomic signal that mediates the generation of a subset of RSV cbDVG species. Using a customized bioinformatics tool, we identified regions in the RSV genome frequently used to generate cbDVGs during infection. We then created a minigenome system to validate the function of one of these sequences and to determine if specific nucleotides were essential for cbDVG generation at that position. Further, we created a recombinant virus unable to produce a subset of cbDVGs due to mutations introduced in this sequence. The identified sequence was also found as a site for cbDVG generation during natural RSV infections, and common cbDVGs originated at this sequence were found among samples from various infected patients. These data demonstrate that sequences encoded in the viral genome determine the location of cbDVG formation and, therefore, the generation of cbDVGs is not a stochastic process. These findings open the possibility of genetically manipulating cbDVG formation to modulate infection outcome.

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