Herpesviruses are pathogens of medical and economic significance that cause a range of diseases in humans and animals. Varicella-zoster virus (VZV) is an important human alpha herpesvirus that causes varicella and zoster after reactivation from latency in sensory ganglia. The morphogenesis of varicella-zoster virus (VZV), like all herpesviruses, involves egress of DNA-containing capsids from the nucleus to the trans- Golgi network for secondary envelopment by viral glycoprotein-enriched membranes followed by transport in intracellular vesicles to the cell surface. Although purified herpesvirus structures have been described, much less is known at the structural level about virus particle morphology within infected cells and this dynamic process, which takes place at different spatial locations and temporal order. Cryogenic electron tomography (cryo-ET) has the promise to uncover 3D structures of assembly intermediates, providing structural details of each molecular component of the virion during this dynamic process. Recent advances in cryo-specimen preparation, data collection strategy, electron optics, electron detector and data processing methods make this type of study tractable. First, we will characterize the structure of VZV complete or light (L; lacking capsids) particles at the cell surface (Aim 1), based on preliminary data showing the feasibility of visualizing these particles by cryo-ET. The cryo-ET dataset will be used to derive capsid structures as a benchmark in the initial protocol development to define the attainable resolution of our data collection and image processing strategy. Next, we aim to determine the structures of the spike densities visible in our dataset, at the resolution attained for capsids. These analyses will put the glycoprotein structures in context to define their distribution, interaction with each other and possibly, structural rearrangement upon interacting with the cell surface. Second, we will characterize the structure of VZV particles inside infected cells (Aim 2). Our well- characterized VZV recombinant expressing the ORF23 capsid protein tagged with RFP will be used for correlative cryo-fluorescence confocal microscopy of vitrified cells with our new cryo-FIB/SEM instrument to prepare thin lamellae of VZV infected cells at sites of an RFP signal in the nucleus or cytoplasm. Milled lamellae will be used for cryo-ET and sub tomogram averaging to generate structures of viral and associated cellular components. This approach will be used to derive the structure of VZV capsids and associated proteins at intracellular sites, to be followed by generating de novo structures of glycoproteins on VZV particles at intracellular sites. This work will address gaps in structural knowledge of herpesvirus morphogenesis within infected cells, using VZV as a model, and advance the application of cryo-ET techniques and data analytics to the study of virus-host cell interactions, which has broad relevance including for SARS-CoV-2, and the molecular biology of human cells. These structure discoveries have the potential to inspire the development of novel drug or prophylactic strategies for the human herpesviruses.
Varicella-zoster virus (VZV) is a medically important human herpesvirus that causes chicken pox and shingles, which can be serious, painful, and life-threatening. These studies have the potential to provide new information about VZV and other herpesvirus viruses directly relevant to developing more effective drugs and vaccines.