The Pirbright Institute publication directory contains details of selected publications written by our researchers.

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Dynamic alteration of the epitranscriptome exerts regulatory effects on the lifecycle of oncogenic viruses in vitro. However, little is known about these effects in vivo because of the general lack of suitable animal infection models of these viruses. Using a model of rapid-onset Marek's disease lymphoma in chickens, we investigated changes in viral and host mRNA N6-methyladenosine (m(6) A) modification during Marek's disease virus (MDV) infection in vivo. We found that the expression of major epitranscriptomic proteins varies among viral infection phases, reprogramming both the viral and the host epitranscriptomes. Specifically, the METTL3/14 complex was suppressed during the lytic and reactivation phases of the MDV lifecycle, whereas its expression was increased during the latent phase and in MDV-induced tumors. METTL3/14 overexpression inhibits, whereas METTL3/14 knockdown enhances, MDV gene expression and replication. These findings reveal the dynamic features of the mRNA m(6) A modification program during viral replication in vivo, especially in relation to key pathways involved in tumorigenesis.

Bahar, MW, Nasta, V, Fox, H, Sherry, L, Grehan, K, Porta, C, Macadam, AJ, Stonehouse, NJ, Rowlands, DJ, Fry, EE and Stuart, DI (2022)

A conserved glutathione binding site in poliovirus is a target for antivirals and vaccine stabilisation

Communications Biology 5 (1), 1293


Strategies to prevent the recurrence of poliovirus (PV) after eradication may utilise non-infectious, recombinant virus-like particle (VLP) vaccines. Despite clear advantages over inactivated or attenuated virus vaccines, instability of VLPs can compromise their immunogenicity. Glutathione (GSH), an important cellular reducing agent, is a crucial co-factor for the morphogenesis of enteroviruses, including PV. We report cryo-EM structures of GSH bound to PV serotype 3 VLPs showing that it can enhance particle stability. GSH binds the positively charged pocket at the interprotomer interface shown recently to bind GSH in enterovirus F3 and putative antiviral benzene sulphonamide compounds in other enteroviruses. We show, using high-resolution cryo-EM, the binding of a benzene sulphonamide compound with a PV serotype 2 VLP, consistent with antiviral activity through over-stabilizing the interprotomer pocket, preventing the capsid rearrangements necessary for viral infection. Collectively, these results suggest GSH or an analogous tight-binding antiviral offers the potential for stabilizing VLP vaccines.

Foster, WS, Lee, JL, Thakur, N, Newman, J, Spencer, AJ, Davies, S, Woods, D, Godfrey, L, Hay, IM, Innocentin, S, Yam-Puc, JC, Horner, EC, Sharpe, HJ, Thaventhiran, JE, Bailey, D, Lambe, T and Linterman, MA (2022)

T follicular helper cells and the germinal centre are required for memory B cell formation and humoral immunity after ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccination

Cell Reports Medicine 3, 100845


Emergence from the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic has been facilitated by the rollout of effective vaccines. Successful vaccines generate high-affinity plasma blasts and long-lived protective memory B cells. Here, we show a requirement for T follicular helper (Tfh) cells and the germinal center reaction for optimal serum antibody and memory B cell formation after ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccination. We found that Tfh cells play an important role in expanding antigen-specific B cells while identifying Tfh-cell-dependent and -independent memory B cell subsets. Upon secondary vaccination, germinal center B cells generated during primary immunizations can be recalled as germinal center B cells again. Likewise, primary immunization GC-Tfh cells can be recalled as either Tfh or Th1 cells, highlighting the pluripotent nature of Tfh cell memory. This study demonstrates that ChAdOx1 nCoV-19-induced germinal centers are a critical source of humoral immunity.


The avian immunosuppressive and neoplastic diseases caused by Marek’s disease virus (MDV), avian leucosis virus (ALV), and reticuloendotheliosis virus (REV) are seriously harmful to the global poultry industry. In recent years, particularly in 2020–2022, outbreaks of such diseases in chicken flocks frequently occurred in China. Herein, we collected live diseased birds from 30 poultry farms, out of 42 farms with tumour-bearing chicken flocks distributed in central China, to investigate the current epidemiology and co-infections of these viruses. The results showed that in individual diseased birds, the positive infection rates of MDV, ALV, and REV were 69.5% (203/292), 14.4% (42/292), and 4.7% (13/277), respectively, while for the flocks, the positive infection rates were 96.7% (29/30), 36.7% (11/30), and 20% (6/30), respectively. For chicken flocks, monoinfection of MDV, ALV, or REV was 53.3% (16/30), 3.3% (1/30), and 0% (0/30), respectively, but a total of 43.3% (13/30) co-infections was observed, which includes 23.3% (7/30) of MDV+ALV, 10.0% (3/30) of MDV+REV, and 10.0% (3/30) of MDV+ALV+REV co-infections. Interestingly, no ALV+REV co-infection or REV monoinfection was observed in the selected poultry farms. Our data indicate that the prevalence of virulent MDV strains, partially accompanied with ALV and/or REV co-infections, is the main reason for current outbreaks of avian neoplastic diseases in central China, providing an important reference for the future control of disease.


African swine fever virus (ASFV) is the etiological agent of a lethal disease of domestic pigs and wild boars. ASF threatens the pig industry worldwide due to the lack of a licensed vaccine or treatment. The disease has been endemic for more than 40 years in Sardinia (Italy), but an intense campaign pushed it close to eradication; virus circulation was last detected in wild boars in 2019. In this study, we present a genomic analysis of two ASFV strains isolated in Sardinia from two wild boars during the 2019 hunting season. Both isolates presented a deletion of 4342 base pairs near the 5' end of the genome, encompassing the genes MGF 360-6L, X69R, and MGF 300-1L. The phylogenetic evidence suggests that the deletion recently originated within the Sardinia ecosystem and that it is most likely the result of a non-allelic homologous recombination driven by a microhomology present in most Sardinian ASFV genomes. These results represent a striking example of a genomic feature promoting the rapid evolution of structural variations and plasticity in the ASFV genome. They also raise interesting questions about the functions of the deleted genes and the potential link between the evolutionary timing of the deletion appearance and the eradication campaign.


The current study aimed to develop broadly protective vaccines for avian influenza. In an earlier study, HA stalk (universal flu vaccine) was found to be broadly protective against different subtypes of influenza virus in mice. Hence, we were interested to know its breadth of protective efficacy either alone or combined with inactivated rgH5N2 (clade vaccine against challenge viruses of homologous H5N1, heterologous H5N8 (clade and heterosubtypic H9N2 virus in specific pathogen-free chickens. The rgH5N2 vaccine alone or in combination with HA stalk elicited sufficient pre-challenge immunity in the form of haemagglutination inhibiting (HI) antibodies and neutralizing antibodies (MNT) against H5N1, H5N8, and H9N2 in chickens. The rgH5N2 vaccine alone or in combination with HA stalk also attenuated the shedding of H5N1, H5N8 and H9N2 in chickens and protected against the lethal challenge of H5N1 or H5N8. In contrast, all HA stalk immunised chickens died upon H5N1 or H5N8 challenge and H9N2 challenged chickens survived. Our study suggests that the rgH5N2 vaccine can provide clinical protection against H5N1, H5N8 and can attenuate the viral shedding of H9N2 in chickens.

Harvey-Samuel, T, Xu, X, Anderson, MAE, Carabajal Paladino, LZ, Purusothaman, D, Norman, VC, Reitmayer, CM, You, M and Alphey, L (2022)

Silencing RNAs expressed from W-linked PxyMasc "retrocopies" target that gene during female sex determination in Plutella xylostella

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119 (46), e2206025119


The Lepidoptera are an insect order of cultural, economic, and environmental importance, representing approximately 10% of all described living species. Yet, for all but one of these species (silkmoth, Bombyx mori), the molecular genetics of how sexual fate is determined remains unknown. We investigated this in the diamondback moth (Plutella xylostella, a globally important, highly invasive, and economically damaging pest of cruciferous crops. Our previous work uncovered a regulator of male sex determination in P. xylostella-PxyMasc, a homolog of B. mori Masculinizer-which, although initially expressed in embryos of both sexes, is then reduced in female embryos, leading to female-specific splicing of doublesex. Here, through sequencing small RNA libraries generated from early embryos and sexed larval pools, we identified a variety of small silencing RNAs (predominantly Piwi-interacting RNAs [piRNAs]) complementary to PxyMasc, whose temporal expression correlated with the reduction in PxyMasc transcript observed previously in females. Analysis of these small RNAs showed that they are expressed from tandemly arranged, multicopy arrays found exclusively on the W (female-specific) chromosome, which we term "Pxyfem". Analysis of the Pxyfem sequences showed that they are partial complementary DNAs (cDNAs) of PxyMasc messenger RNA (mRNA) transcripts, likely integrated into transposable element graveyards by the noncanonical action of retrotransposons (retrocopies), and that their apparent similarity to B. mori feminizer more probably represents convergent evolution. Our study helps elucidate the sex determination cascade in this globally important pest and highlights the "shortcuts" that retrotransposition events can facilitate in the evolution of complex molecular cascades, including sex determination.


Marek's disease virus (MDV) induces immunosuppression and neoplastic disease in chickens. The virus is controllable via an attenuated meq deletion mutant virus, which has the disadvantage of retaining the ability to induce lymphoid organ atrophy. To overcome this deficiency and produce more vaccine candidates, a recombinant MDV was generated from the highly virulent Md5BAC strain, in which both meq and a cytolytic replication-related gene, pp38, were deleted. Replication of the double deletion virus, Md5BAC ΔmeqΔpp38, was comparable with that of the parental virus in vitro. The double deletion virus was shown to be fully attenuated and to reduce lymphoid organ atrophy in vivo. Crucially, Md5BAC ΔmeqΔpp38 confers superior protection against highly virulent virus compared with a commercial vaccine strain, CVI988/Rispens. Transcriptomic profiling indicated that Md5BAC ΔmeqΔpp38 induced a different host immune response from CVI988/Rispens. In summary, a novel, effective, and safe vaccine candidate for prevention and control of MD caused by highly virulent MDV is reported.


Turkey herpesvirus (HVT) is widely used as an effective recombinant vaccine vector for expressing protective antigens of multiple avian pathogens from different loci of the HVT genome. These include the HVT029/031 (UL22–23) locus for the insertion of IBDV VP2 and the recently identified HVT005/006 locus as a novel site for expressing heterologous proteins. In order to compare the efficacy of recombinant vaccines with the HA gene at different sites, the growth curves and the HA expression levels of HVT-005/006-hCMV-HA, HVT-005/006-MLV-HA, and HVT-029/031-MLV-HA were first examined in vitro. While the growth kinetics of three recombinant viruses were not significantly different from those of parent HVT, higher expression of the HA gene was achieved from the HVT005/006 site than that from the HVT029/031 site. The efficacy of the three recombinant viruses against avian influenza H9N2 virus was also evaluated using one-day-old SPF chickens. Chickens immunized with HVT-005/006-MLV-HA or HVT-005/006-hCMV-HA displayed reduced virus shedding compared to HVT-029/031-MLV-HA vaccinated chickens. Moreover, the overall hemagglutination inhibition (HI) antibody titers of HVT-005/006-HA-vaccinated chickens were higher than that of HVT-029/031-HA-vaccinated chickens. However, HVT-005/006-MLV-HA and HVT-005/006-hCMV-HA did not result in a significant difference in the level of HA expression in vitro and provided the same protective efficacy (100%) at 5 days after challenge. In the current study, the results suggested that recombinant HVT005/006 vaccines caused better expression of HA than recombinant HVT029/031 vaccine, and that HVT-005/006-MLV-HA or HVT-005/006-hCMV-HA could be a candidate vaccine for the protection of chickens against H9N2 influenza.

James, J, Bhat, S, Walsh, SK, Karunarathna, TK, Sadeyen, J-R, Chang, P, Sealy, JE, Mahmood, S, Mollett, BC, Slomka, MJ, Brookes, SM and Iqbal, M (2022)

The origin of internal genes contributes to the replication and transmission fitness of H7N9 avian influenza virus

Journal of Virology


H9N2 avian influenza viruses (AIVs) have donated internal gene segments during the emergence of zoonotic AIVs, including H7N9. We used reverse genetics to generate A/Anhui/1/13 (H7N9) and three reassortant viruses (2:6 H7N9) which contained the hemagglutinin and neuraminidase from Anhui/13 (H7N9) and the six internal gene segments from H9N2 AIVs belonging to (i) G1 subgroup 2, (ii) G1 subgroup 3, or (iii) BJ94 lineages, enzootic in different regions throughout Asia. Infection of chickens with the 2:6 H7N9 containing G1-like H9N2 internal genes conferred attenuation in vivo, with reduced shedding and transmission to contact chickens. However, possession of BJ94-like H9N2 internal genes resulted in more rapid transmission and significantly elevated cloacal shedding compared to the parental Anhui/13 H7N9. In vitro analysis showed that the 2:6 H7N9 with BJ94-like internal genes had significantly increased replication compared to the Anhui/13 H7N9 in chicken cells. In vivo coinfection experiments followed, where chickens were coinfected with pairs of Anhui/13 H7N9 and a 2:6 H7N9 reassortant. During ensuing transmission events, the Anhui/13 H7N9 virus outcompeted 2:6 H7N9 AIVs with internal gene segments of BJ94-like or G1-like H9N2 viruses. Coinfection did lead to the emergence of novel reassortant genotypes that were transmitted to contact chickens. Some of the reassortant viruses had a greater replication in chicken and human cells compared to the progenitors. We demonstrated that the internal gene cassette determines the transmission fitness of H7N9 viruses in chickens, and the reassortment events can generate novel H7N9 genotypes with increased virulence in chickens and enhanced zoonotic potential.


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