Musashi binding elements in Zika and related Flavivirus 3'UTRs: A comparative study in silico.


Zika virus (ZIKV) belongs to a class of neurotropic viruses that have the ability to cause congenital infection, which can result in microcephaly or fetal demise. Recently, the RNA-binding protein Musashi-1 (Msi1), which mediates the maintenance and self-renewal of stem cells and acts as a translational regulator, has been associated with promoting ZIKV replication, neurotropism, and pathology. Msi1 predominantly binds to single-stranded motifs in the 3' untranslated region (UTR) of RNA that contain a UAG trinucleotide in their core. We systematically analyzed the properties of Musashi binding elements (MBEs) in the 3'UTR of flaviviruses with a thermodynamic model for RNA folding. Our results indicate that MBEs in ZIKV 3'UTRs occur predominantly in unpaired, single-stranded structural context, thus corroborating experimental observations by a biophysical model of RNA structure formation. Statistical analysis and comparison with related viruses show that ZIKV MBEs are maximally accessible among mosquito-borne flaviviruses. Our study addresses the broader question of whether other emerging arboviruses can cause similar neurotropic effects through the same mechanism in the developing fetus by establishing a link between the biophysical properties of viral RNA and teratogenicity. Moreover, our thermodynamic model can explain recent experimental findings and predict the Msi1-related neurotropic potential of other viruses.

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