African horse sickness virus NS4 protein is an important virulence factor and interferes with JAK-STAT signaling during viral infection

17 Jan 2022

African horse sickness virus (AHSV) non-structural protein NS4 is a nucleocytoplasmic protein that is expressed in the heart, lung, and spleen of infected horses, binds dsDNA, and colocalizes with promyelocytic leukemia nuclear bodies (PML-NBs). The aim of this study was to investigate the role of AHSV NS4 in viral replication, virulence and the host immune response. Using a reverse genetics-derived virulent strain of AHSV-5 and NS4 deletion mutants, we showed that knockdown of NS4 expression has no impact in cell culture, but results in virus attenuation in infected horses. RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) was used to investigate the transcriptional response in these horses, to see how the lack of NS4 mediates the transition of the virus from virulent to attenuated. The presence of NS4 was shown to result in a 24 hour (h) delay in the transcriptional activation of several immune system processes compared to when the protein was absent. Included in these processes were the RIG-I-like, Toll-like receptor, and JAK-STAT signaling pathways, which are key pathways involved in innate immunity and the antiviral response. Thus, it was shown that AHSV NS4 suppresses the host innate immune transcriptional response in the early stages of the infection cycle. We investigated whether AHSV NS4 affects the innate immune response by impacting the JAK-STAT signaling pathway specifically. Using confocal laser scanning microscopy (CLSM) we showed that AHSV NS4 disrupts JAK-STAT signaling by interfering with the phosphorylation and/or translocation of STAT1 and pSTAT1 into the nucleus. Overall, these results showed that AHSV NS4 is a key virulence factor in horses and allows AHSV to overcome host antiviral responses in order to promote viral replication and spread.