Filoviruses, which include ebola-, marburg-, and cuevaviruses, are notifiable animal disease agents. The natural hosts of these viruses are bats; however, livestock, and particularly pigs, have also been shown to harbor filoviruses. As zoonotic agents filoviruses can be transmitted from animals to humans, and then cause severe hemorrhagic fevers with extremely high case fatality rates. The unprecedented outbreak of ebolavirus hemorrhagic fever in Western Africa in 2014/2015 has demonstrated that these viruses constitute a major threat to public health. While significant progress has recently been made in the development of vaccines and potential therapeutics, there are still no approved countermeasures available.
Our focus is the molecular biology of filoviruses, with a particular emphasis on virus-host interactions and the molecular biology of the virus lifecycle. The aim is to find commonalities between filoviruses and other virus families, which can serve as targets for broad spectrum antivirals that are active not only against filoviruses, but also against other RNA viruses.
A methodological focus is the development and application of reverse genetics systems for filoviruses. This includes the generation of recombinant infectious ebolaviruses using full-length clone systems, as well as life-cycle-modelling systems, which allow to work on filoviruses without the need for high containment laboratories.
- Groseth A, Hoenen T. 2017. Forty years of ebolavirus molecular biology: Understanding a novel disease agent through the development and application of new technologies. Methods in Molecular Biology 1628:15-38.
- Hoenen T, Brandt J, Caì Y, Kuhn JH, Finch C. 2017. Reverse genetics of filoviruses. Current Topics in Microbiology and Immunology 411:421-445.
Development, optimization and application of life cycle modelling systems
Filoviruses are considered biosafety level 4 agents, which limits experimental work to a few maximum containing laboratories worldwide. In order to investigate the life cycle of filoviruses outside of such laboratories, we have developed life cycle modeling systems. These systems are based on minigenomes (miniature versions of the filoviral genome, from which essential virus genes have been removed, and which, therefore, can be used under S1 conditions) and model either individual aspects of the viral life cycle or its entirety. The most advanced of these systems, the so-called tetracistronic transcription and replication-competent virus-like particle (trVLP) system (Figure 1), allows to model the entire life cycle over multiple infectious cycles using only filoviral components. It has been made available to more than 50 laboratories worldwide and is used for multiple applications, including the identification and characterization of new antiviral drugs, as well as basic research on filoviruses. Our laboratory is constantly optimizing and further developing these systems, and appies them to study current questions in filovirus biology.
- Schmidt ML, Tews BA, Groseth A, Hoenen T. 2018. Generation and optimization of a GFP-expressing trVLP system for Ebola virus. Journal of Infectious Diseases (epub ahead of print).
- Wendt L, Kämper L, Schmidt ML, Mettenleiter TC, Hoenen T. 2018. Analysis of a putative late domain using an Ebola virus transcription and replication-competent virus-like particle system. Journal of Infectious Diseases (epub ahead of print).
- Schmidt ML, Hoenen T. 2017. Characterization of the catalytic center of the Ebola virus L polymerase. PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 11(10):e0005996.
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Study of the role of the host factors NXF1, DDX39B, and CAD for the filovirus life cycle
As intracellular parasites viruses rely on host cell proteins for many if not all aspects of their life cycle. Interactions of viral factors with host cell proteins represent interesting targets for therapeutics, since it is more difficult for viruses to develop resistance to such therapeutics than to therapeutics that are directly and exclusively acting against viral factors. In addition, various viruses often use identical interactions or host factors, so that targeted therapeutics often have a broader spectrum of action than classic, directly acting antiviral therapies. In a project funded by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft - DFG) we are working on three host factors (NXF1, DDX39B, and CAD) that play a role in viral genome replication and transcription (Figure 2). On the one hand we are characterizing interactions between these cellular proteins and viral factors on a biochemical level, and on the other hand we investigate the functional role of the host proteins in the viral life cycle. For this purpose, both life-cycle modeling systems and recombinant filoviruses are being used.
- Martin S, Chiramel AI, Schmidt ML, Chen Y, Whitt N, Watt A, Dunham EC, Shifflett K, Traeger S, Leske A, Buehler E, Martellaro C, Brandt J, Wendt L, Müller A, Peitsch S, Best SM, Stech J, Finke S, Römer-Oberdörfer A, Groseth A, Feldmann H, Hoenen T. 2018. A genome-wide siRNA screen identifies a druggable host pathway essential for the Ebola virus life cycle. Genome Medicine 10(1):58. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30081931
Investigations of the role of livestock animals for filovirus biology in West Africa
The 2013-2016 Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa has demonstrated that filoviruses are not only a problem for African countries, but that outbreaks of this kind can have worldwide consequences. At the same time, it has highlighted gaps in our knowledge of the biology and epidemiology of filoviruses. One of these gaps is the potential role of livestock as relevant hosts. While it is known that pigs can become infected with Asian filoviruses, and also seem capable of transmitting these viruses to humans, the importance of pigs or other farm animals for African filoviruses is poorly understood. In a project funded by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture based on a decision of the German Bundestag through the Federal Agency for Food and Agriculture, the role of livestock for the biology of filoviruses in West Africa is being examined in more detail. The focus of the Laboratory for Molecular Biology of Filoviruses is to investigate the ability of the cellular receptor NPC1 from African animal species to allow entry of filoviruses into the host cell, and to develop novel detection methods for previously unknown filoviruses. Furthermore, the laboratory participates in the training of African partners in molecular detection techniques for filoviruses and in sequencing using Nanopore technology.
- Fischer K, Jabaty J, Suluku R, Strecker T, Groseth A, Fehling SK, Balkema-Buschmann A, Koroma B, Schmidt KM, Ataherstone C, Weingartl HM, Mettenleiter TC, Groschup MH, Hoenen T, Diederich S. 2018. Serological evidence for the circulation of Ebolaviruses in pigs from Sierra Leone. Journal of Infectious Diseases (epub ahead of print).
- Hoenen T. 2016. Sequencing of Ebola Virus Genomes Using Nanopore Technology. Bioprotocols 6(21):e1998.