Ultrastructural characterization of arterivirus replication structures: reshaping the endoplasmic reticulum to accommodate viral RNA synthesis

Kèvin Knoops, Montserrat Bárcena, Ronald W A L Limpens, Abraham J Koster, A Mieke Mommaas, Eric J Snijder

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Virus-induced membrane structures support the assembly and function of positive-strand RNA virus replication complexes. The replicase proteins of arteriviruses are associated with double-membrane vesicles (DMVs), which were previously proposed to derive from the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). Using electron tomography, we performed an in-depth ultrastructural analysis of cells infected with the prototypic arterivirus equine arteritis virus (EAV). We established that the outer membranes of EAV-induced DMVs are interconnected with each other and with the ER, thus forming a reticulovesicular network (RVN) resembling that previously described for the distantly related severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus. Despite significant morphological differences, a striking parallel between the two virus groups, and possibly all members of the order Nidovirales, is the accumulation in the DMV interior of double-stranded RNA, the presumed intermediate of viral RNA synthesis. In our electron tomograms, connections between the DMV interior and cytosol could not be unambiguously identified, suggesting that the double-stranded RNA is compartmentalized by the DMV membranes. As a novel approach to visualize and quantify the RNA content of viral replication structures, we explored electron spectroscopic imaging of DMVs, which revealed the presence of phosphorus in amounts equaling on average a few dozen copies of the EAV RNA genome. Finally, our electron tomograms revealed a network of nucleocapsid protein-containing protein tubules that appears to be intertwined with the RVN. This potential intermediate in nucleocapsid formation, which was not observed in coronavirus-infected cells, suggests that arterivirus RNA synthesis and assembly are coordinated in intracellular space.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2474-87
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Virology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Mar-2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Animals
  • Arteritis Virus, Equine
  • Arterivirus
  • Arterivirus Infections
  • Cell Line
  • Endoplasmic Reticulum
  • Intracellular Membranes
  • RNA, Viral
  • Virus Replication

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