We have developed a high-resolution genomic mapping technique that combines transposon-mediated insertional mutagenesis with either capillary electrophoresis or massively parallel sequencing to identify functionally important regions of the Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus (VEEV) genome. We initially used a capillary electrophoresis method to gain insight into the role of the VEEV nonstructural protein 3 (nsP3) in viral replication. We identified several regions in nsP3 that are intolerant to small (15 bp) insertions, and thus are presumably functionally important. We also identified nine separate regions in nsP3 that will tolerate small insertions at low temperatures (30°C), but not at higher temperatures (37°C, and 40°C). Because we found this method to be extremely effective at identifying temperature sensitive (ts) mutations, but limited by capillary electrophoresis capacity, we replaced the capillary electrophoresis with massively parallel sequencing and used the improved method to generate a functional map of the entire VEEV genome. We identified several hundred potential ts mutations throughout the genome and we validated several of the mutations in nsP2, nsP3, E3, E2, E1 and capsid using single-cycle growth curve experiments with virus generated through reverse genetics. We further demonstrated that two of the nsP3 ts mutants were attenuated for virulence in mice but could elicit protective immunity against challenge with wild-type VEEV. The recombinant ts mutants will be valuable tools for further studies of VEEV replication and virulence. Moreover, the method that we developed is applicable for generating such tools for any virus with a robust reverse genetics system.
Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus (VEEV) is a New World Alphavirus that was first identified in Venezuela in 1938. VEEV normally circulates in rodent populations, but during outbreaks it can jump to horses and humans where it can cause debilitating and potentially fatal disease. There are currently no vaccines or antiviral agents against VEEV licensed for use in humans. In this study, we describe a technique that we have developed that allows for the rapid identification of viral mutants that can be useful for studying the basic biology of viral replication. These mutants can also be used to generate vaccines that protect against infection with wild-type virus. We demonstrate the utility of this technique by identifying over 200 mutations spread throughout VEEV genome that make the virus unable to replicate efficiently at higher temperatures (37°C or 40°C.) Furthermore, we show that two of the mutant viruses work as vaccines, and protect mice against lethal infection with VEEV. This technique can be applied to studying other viruses, and may allow for the rapid identification of numerous vaccine candidates.