Virus hijacks cell’s transportation system

Research Press Release | September 01, 2017

A deadly tick-borne virus uses the host neuron’s transportation system to move their RNA, resulting in the local reproduction of the virus and severe neurological symptoms.


Flaviviruses are a significant threat to public health worldwide, and some infected patients develop severe — potentially fatal — neurological diseases. Tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV), a member of the genus Flavivirus, causes encephalic diseases resulting in photophobia, irritability and sleep disorders. However, little is known about their pathogenic mechanisms and no effective treatment is available at present.

A research team at Hokkaido University has previously showed that, in mouse neurons, genomic RNAs of TBEV are transported from the cell body to dendrites, the neuron’s wire-like protrusions. Viral RNAs then reproduce viruses locally in dendrites disturbing normal neuronal activities. 

In the new study published in PNAS, the team looked into the transportation mechanism of viral RNAs in neurons, and discovered they make use of the cell’s transportation system, which is normally used to move neuronal RNAs in dendrites. A specific non-coding sequence near the terminal of viral RNAs was found pivotal in interacting with the transportation system. When the sequence was mutated, the infected mouse showed reduced neurological symptoms. In their biochemical experiments, viral RNAs could bind to a protein that forms a neuronal granule, which is part of the neuron’s transportation system.


Left panel: RNA that mimics a viral RNA of TBEV (green) being transported to a dendrite. Right panel: Viral proteins (purple) being produced in a dendrite. (Hirano M. et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, August 28, 2017)

Furthermore, their data shows that normal transportation of neuronal RNAs become affected by viral RNAs as a result of competition to use the transportation network.

Associate Professor Kentaro Yoshii, who led the research team, commented “It is unprecedented for a neuropathogenic virus to hijack the neuronal granule system to transport their genomic RNA, which results in severe neurological diseases. The disruption of the neuronal granule system is also known to be involved in non-viral diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. So the unique virus-host interaction we revealed should help us understand their pathogenesis and develop treatments in the future.”

Original article:

Hirano M. et al., Dendritic transport of tick-borne flavivirus RNA by neuronal granule affects development of the neurological disease. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America (PNAS), August 28, 2017.

DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1704454114

Funding information:

This work is supported by Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research (24780293, 25304040, 26660220, 15J00686, 15K19069, 16J00854, Q:19 and 16K15032) from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and

Technology of Japan (MEXT); the Research Program on Emerging and Re-Emerging Infectious Diseases from the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED); Grants-in-Aid for the Regional R&D Proposal-Based Program from the Northern Advancement Center for Science & Technology of Hokkaido, Japan; Grants-in-Aid for Medical Research from the Takeda Science Foundation; and a grant provided by The Ichiro Kanehara Foundation.


Associate Professor Kentaro Yoshii

Faculty of Veterinary Medicine,

Hokkaido University

Email: kyoshii[at]

Naoki Namba (Media Officer)

Global Relations Office

Institute for International Collaboration

Hokkaido University

Tel: +81-11-706-2185

Email: pr[at]