Varicella-zoster virus (VZV), a double-stranded DNA virus, causes varicella, establishes lifelong latency in ganglionic neurons, and reactivates later in life to cause herpes zoster, commonly associated with chronic pain. The VZV genome is densely packed and produces multitudes of overlapping transcripts deriving from both strands. While 71 distinct open reading frames (ORFs) have thus far been experimentally defined, the full coding potential of VZV remains unknown. Here, we integrated multiple short-read RNA sequencing approaches with long-read direct RNA sequencing on RNA isolated from VZV-infected cells to provide a comprehensive reannotation of the lytic VZV transcriptome architecture. Through precise mapping of transcription start sites, splice junctions, and polyadenylation sites, we identified 136 distinct polyadenylated VZV RNAs that encode canonical ORFs, noncanonical ORFs, and ORF fusions, as well as putative noncoding RNAs (ncRNAs). Furthermore, we determined the kinetic class of all VZV transcripts and observed, unexpectedly, that transcripts encoding the ORF62 protein, previously designated Immediate-Early, were expressed with Late kinetics. Our work showcases the complexity of the VZV transcriptome and provides a comprehensive resource that will facilitate future functional studies of coding RNAs, ncRNAs, and the biological mechanisms underlying the regulation of viral transcription and translation during lytic VZV infection. IMPORTANCE Transcription from herpesviral genomes, executed by the host RNA polymerase II and regulated by viral proteins, results in coordinated viral gene expression to efficiently produce infectious progeny. However, the complete coding potential and regulation of viral gene expression remain ill-defined for the human alphaherpesvirus varicella-zoster virus (VZV), causative agent of both varicella and herpes zoster. Here, we present a comprehensive overview of the VZV transcriptome and the kinetic class of all identified viral transcripts, using two virus strains and two biologically relevant cell types. Additionally, our data provide an overview of how VZV diversifies its transcription from one of the smallest herpesviral genomes. Unexpectedly, the transcript encoding the major viral transactivator protein (pORF62) was expressed with Late kinetics, whereas orthologous transcripts in other alphaherpesviruses are typically expressed during the immediate early phase. Therefore, our work both establishes the architecture of the VZV transcriptome and provides insight into regulation of alphaherpesvirus gene expression.

direct RNA-Seq, ORF62, alphaherpesvirus, kinetics, transcriptome, varicella-zoster virus,
Department of Virology

Braspenning, S.E., Sadaoka, T., Breuer, J, Verjans, G.M.G.M, Ouwendijk, W.J.D, & Depledge, D.P. (2020). Decoding the Architecture of the Varicella-Zoster Virus Transcriptome. MBIO, 11(5). doi:10.1128/mBio.01568-20