Purdue University Graduate School

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posted on 2024-03-08, 23:49 authored by Conrrad Makea Rupe NichollsConrrad Makea Rupe Nicholls

It is with great pleasure that I present the culmination of my exploration into the process of flavivirus assembly, with particular emphasis on the envelope glycoproteins and C protein of ZIKV and DENV2, within the subsequent four chapters of this dissertation.

Beginning in Chapter 2, we describe findings from a structure-function study of the ZIKV prM and E transmembrane helices (TMHs) and their role in virus assembly. Using a mutagenesis approach in a ZIKV reporter virus particle (RVP) system to increase throughput and discovery, substantial information was obtained showcasing a novel function for specific residues located within a short (4 residue) connecting region between the two TMHs of prM protein – denoted as the prM TMH “turn” residues. During translation of the prM and E proteins, these TMH “turn” residues face towards the cytosolic side of the ER membrane. This orientation has been hypothesized to possibly play a role during viral assembly interactions between the envelope glycoproteins and the nucleocapsid core of flaviviruses. However, no information to date has supported or refuted this theory. Overall, a single amino acid change within the prM TMH “turn” residues was found to be highly detrimental to viral assembly, ultimately leading to the loss of capsid integration into released sub viral particles and the alteration of the lipid membrane architecture. We surmised that lipid interactions around the region of the mutation were perturbed, leading to a loss of assembly capabilities but interestingly maintaining the budding mechanisms. The work of Chapter 2 will be submitted for publication to a peer reviewed journal shortly after the submission of this dissertation.

Chapter 3 expands on the ZIKV RVP results described in Chapter 2 by detailing a series of mutagenesis experiments into the role of the prM and E TMHs in the fully infectious ZIKV and DENV2 systems. Mutations within the prM TMH “turn” residues of DENV2 were found to also perturb virus infectivity, with two mutations within prM completely eliminating infectivity. The two mutants were found to be capable of producing NS5 and intracellular E protein that had been glycosylated, indicating that translation was intact and that E protein trafficking into the trans-Golgi network still occurred. However, unlike the results discussed in Chapter 2, the DENV2 mutants did not release any detectable E protein into their supernatants. This suggested that while the mutants could generate viral proteins and somehow undergo protein trafficking into the Golgi (signifying potential particle maturation), no particles were released. The DENV2 results were supported by reciprocal mutations in the prM proteins of ZIKV using fully infectious cDNA clones. The ZIKV prM mutants also eliminated virus infectivity and prevented the release of the E protein into the supernatant, indicating no release of viral particles, infectious or otherwise. Overall, the mutations in the fully infectious DNEV2 and ZIKV systems add further support for a novel role of the prM TMHs in flavivirus assembly.

Chapter 4 describes our efforts to reconstitute the flavivirus envelope glycoproteins into natively derived lipid nanoparticles for in vitro assembly analysis. Styrene-maleic acid copolymers (SMAs) were utilized for this study due to their ability to self-polymerize into highly hydrophobic chains in aqueous solutions. These hydrophobic chains can imbed themselves into lipid membranes to escape the aqueous environment, and in doing so “cut out” ~10nm diameter “patches” of native lipid membranes, along with any integrated membrane proteins. This “lipid/protein patch” is referred to as a styrene-maleic acid lipid nanoparticle (SMALP). Initially, attempts were made to generate SMALPs using purified Kunjin virus (KUNV) particles as the source of membrane lipids and glycoproteins due to their rapid growth rate and homogenous particle population. Unfortunately, attempts to generate SMALPs using purified KUNV were unsuccessful. It is hypothesized that the membrane curvature of purified KUNV particles generated a sterically and energetically unfavorable environment for SMALP generation, leading to the complete destruction of the particles during SMA mixing. To circumvent this issue, cells transfected with either WT or mutant ZIKV RVP cDNA were fractionated and purified ER membrane samples were mixed with SMAs to generate SMALPs. Western blot analysis suggested that the SMALP generation was successful. However, further experimentation is warranted to confirm this outcome and the structural integrity of the envelope glycoproteins within the SMALP.

Chapter 5 describes collaborative work on the identification of a novel compound inhibitor against flavivirus assembly, specifically targeting C protein’s interactions with RNA. This work was done in conjunction with a visiting scholar from the Indian Institute of Technology Mandi – Dr. Prateek Kumar – during his time at Purdue University from August 2022-May 2023. Much of the foundational computation work was done by Prateek prior to his arrival at Purdue University. As such, while the full context and results for the entirety of the study will be discussed, this chapter will primarily focus on the in vitro experimental results that were gathered directly by me, or results that were produced by Prateek and myself equally. This chapter demonstrates that a novel small molecule inhibitor against ZIKV C protein can, in fact, diminish ZIKV assembly by impeding C protein’s binding to RNA, prevent efficient RNA replication through binding and disruption of NS2B/3 protease, and perturb virus binding and entry prior to infection by also binding to E protein. Moreover, the novel molecule was also found to disrupt DENV2 infection as well, albeit to a lesser degree than ZIKV. This multifaceted molecule was recommended for further study in animal systems to continue testing its safety and efficacy for treatment of ZIKV and DENV2 in humans. A co-authorship manuscript has been completed on the work from this chapter and is currently awaiting submission to a peer reviewed journal.

Finally, Chapter 6 will combine the conclusions from the above chapters and discuss, in detail, aspects pertaining to the future of studies aiming to better understand the assembly of flaviviruses. This chapter will focus on how the link between viral assembly and membrane lipid architecture fits with previously established literature and what future directions could be employed to answer the questions proposed within.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Biological Sciences

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Richard J. Kuhn

Additional Committee Member 2

Robert Stahelin

Additional Committee Member 3

Jean Chmielewski

Additional Committee Member 4

Douglas LaCount

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