A versatile reporter system to monitor virus infected cells and its application to dengue virus and SARS-CoV-2

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Positive-strand RNA viruses have been the etiological agents in several major disease outbreaks over the last few decades. Examples of that are flaviviruses, such as dengue virus and Zika virus that cause millions of yearly infections and spread around the globe, and coronaviruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, which is the cause of the current pandemic. The severity of outbreaks caused by these viruses stresses the importance of virology research in determining mechanisms to limit virus spread and to curb disease severity. Such studies require molecular tools to decipher virus-host interactions and to develop effective interventions. Here, we describe the generation and characterization of a reporter system to visualize dengue virus and SARS-CoV-2 replication in live cells. The system is based on viral protease activity causing cleavage and nuclear translocation of an engineered fluorescent protein that is expressed in the infected cells. We show the suitability of the system for live cell imaging and visualization of single infected cells as well as for screening and testing of antiviral compounds. Given the modular building blocks, the system is easy to manipulate and can be adapted to any virus encoding a protease, thus offering a high degree of flexibility. IMPORTANCE Reporter systems are useful tools for fast and quantitative visualization of viral replication and spread within a host cell population. Here we describe a reporter system that takes advantage of virus-encoded proteases that are expressed in infected cells to cleave an ER-anchored fluorescent protein fused to a nuclear localization sequence. Upon cleavage, the fluorescent protein translocates to the nucleus, allowing for rapid detection of the infected cells. Using this system, we demonstrate reliable reporting activity for two major human pathogens from the Flaviviridae and the Coronaviridae families: dengue virus and SARS-CoV-2. We apply this reporter system to live cell imaging and use it for proof-of-concept to validate antiviral activity of a nucleoside analogue. This reporter system is not only an invaluable tool for the characterization of viral replication, but also for the discovery and development of antivirals that are urgently needed to halt the spread of these viruses.

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