In mammalian cells, the first line of defense against viral pathogens is the innate immune response, which is characterized by induction of type I interferons (IFN) and other pro-inflammatory cytokines that establish an antiviral milieu both in infected cells and in neighboring uninfected cells. Rotavirus, a double-stranded RNA virus of the Reoviridae family, is the primary etiological agent of severe diarrhea in young children worldwide. Previous studies demonstrated that rotavirus replication induces a MAVS-dependent type I IFN response that involves both RIG-I and MDA5, two cytoplasmic viral RNA sensors. This study reports the isolation and characterization of rotavirus RNAs that activate IFN signaling. Using an in vitro approach with purified rotavirus double-layer particles, nascent single-stranded RNA (ssRNA) transcripts (termed in vitro ssRNA) were found to be potent IFN inducers. In addition, large RNAs isolated from rotavirus-infected cells six hours post-infection (termed in vivo 6 hr large RNAs), also activated IFN signaling, whereas a comparable large RNA fraction isolated from cells infected for only one hour lacked this stimulatory activity. Experiments using knockout murine embryonic fibroblasts showed that RIG-I is required for and MDA5 partly contributes to innate immune signaling by both in vitro ssRNA and in vivo 6 hr large RNAs. Enzymatic studies demonstrated that in vitro ssRNA and in vivo 6 hr large RNA samples contain uncapped RNAs with exposed 5 phosphate groups. RNAs lacking 2-O-methylated 5 cap structures were also detected in the in vivo 6 hr large RNA sample. Taken together, our data provide strong evidence that the rotavirus VP3 enzyme, which encodes both guanylyltransferase and methyltransferase activities, is not completely efficient at either 5 capping or 2-O-methylation of the 5 cap structures of viral transcripts, and in this way produces RNA patterns that activate innate immune signaling through the RIG-I-like receptors.
Cytoplasmic viral RNAs with 5 triphosphates (5ppp) are detected by the RNA helicase RIG-I, initiating downstream signaling and alpha/beta interferon (IFN-alpha/beta) expression that establish an antiviral state. We demonstrate here that the hepatitis C virus (HCV) 3 untranslated region (UTR) RNA has greater activity as an immune stimulator than several flavivirus UTR RNAs. We confirmed that the HCV 3-UTR poly(U/UC) region is the determinant for robust activation of RIG-I-mediated innate immune signaling and that its antisense sequence, poly(AG/A), is an equivalent RIG-I activator. The poly(U/UC) region of the fulminant HCV JFH-1 strain was a relatively weak activator, while the antisense JFH-1 strain poly(AG/A) RNA was very potent. Poly(U/UC) activity does not require primary nucleotide sequence adjacency to the 5ppp, suggesting that RIG-I recognizes two independent RNA domains. Whereas poly(U) 50-nt or poly(A) 50-nt sequences were minimally active, inserting a single C or G nucleotide, respectively, into these RNAs increased IFN-beta expression. Poly(U/UC) RNAs transcribed in vitro using modified uridine 2 fluoro or pseudouridine ribonucleotides lacked signaling activity while functioning as competitive inhibitors of RIG-I binding and IFN-beta expression. Nucleotide base and ribose modifications that convert activator RNAs into competitive inhibitors of RIG-I signaling may be useful as modulators of RIG-I-mediated innate immune responses and as tools to dissect the RNA binding and conformational events associated with signaling.
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