Rapid Evolution of Enhanced Zika Virus Virulence during Direct Vertebrate Transmission Chains


Zika virus (ZIKV) has the unusual capacity to circumvent natural alternating mosquito-human transmission and be directly transmitted human to human via sexual and vertical routes. The impact of direct transmission on ZIKV evolution and adaptation to vertebrate hosts is unknown. Here, we show that molecularly barcoded ZIKV rapidly adapted to a mammalian host during direct transmission chains in mice, coincident with the emergence of an amino acid substitution previously shown to enhance virulence. In contrast, little to no adaptation of ZIKV to mice was observed following chains of direct transmission in mosquitoes or alternating host transmission. Detailed genetic analyses revealed that ZIKV evolution in mice was generally more convergent and subjected to more relaxed purifying selection than that in mosquitoes or alternate passages. These findings suggest that prevention of direct human transmission chains is paramount to resist gains in ZIKV virulence. IMPORTANCE We used experimental evolution to model chains of direct and indirect Zika virus (ZIKV) transmission by serially passaging a synthetic swarm of molecularly barcoded ZIKV within and between mosquitoes and mice. We observed that direct mouse transmission chains facilitated a rapid increase in ZIKV replication and enhanced virulence in mice. These findings demonstrate that ZIKV is capable of rapid adaptation to a vertebrate host and indicate that direct human-to-human transmission poses a greater threat to public health than currently realized.



Aedes aegypti, flavivirus, Zika virus, experimental evolution, host cycling, pathogenesis, virulence