Coronavirus infection of mice has been used extensively as a model for the study of acute encephalitis and chronic demyelination. To examine the evolution of coronavirus RNA during chronic demyelinating infection, we isolated RNA from intracerebrally inoculated mice at 4, 6, 8, 13, 20, and 42 days postinfection and used reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction amplification methods (RT-PCR) to detect viral sequences. RNA sequences from two viral structural genes, the spike gene and the nucleocapsid gene, were detected throughout the chronic infection. In contrast, infectious virus was not detectable from brain homongenates beyond 13 days postinfection. These results indicate that coronavirus RNA persists in the brain at times when infectious virus is not detected. To determine if genetic changes were occurring during viral replication in the host, we cloned and sequenced the RT-PCR products from the spike and nucleocapsid regions and analyzed the sequences for mutations. Sequencing of the cloned products revealed that a variety of mutant forms of viral RNA persisted in the CNS, including point mutants, deletion mutants, and termination mutants. The mutations accumulated during persistent infection in both the spike and the nucleocapsid sequences, with greater than 65% of the mutations encoding amino acid changes. These results show that a diverse population or quasispecies consisting of mutant and deletion variant viral RNAs (which may not be capable of producing infectious virus particles) persists in the central nervous system of mice during chronic demyelinating infection. The implications of these results for the role of persistent viral genetic information in the pathogenesis of chronic demyelination are discussed.
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