Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is a widespread pathogen that causes epithelial lesions with recurrent disease that manifests over a lifetime. The lifelong aspect of infection results from latent viral infection of neurons, a reservoir from which the virus reactivates periodically. Recent work has demonstrated the breadth of genetic variation in globally distributed HSV strains. However, the amount of variation or capacity for mutation within one strain has not been well studied. Here we developed and applied a streamlined new approach for assembly and comparison of large DNA viral genomes such as HSV-1. This viral genome assembly (VirGA) workflow incorporates a combination of de novo assembly, alignment, and annotation strategies to automate the generation of draft genomes for large viruses. We applied this approach to quantify the amount of variation between clonal derivatives of a common parental virus stock. In addition, we examined the genetic basis for syncytial plaque phenotypes displayed by a subset of these strains. In each of the syncytial strains, we found an identical DNA change, affecting one residue in the gB (UL27) fusion protein. Since these identical mutations could have appeared after extensive in vitro passaging, we applied the VirGA sequencing and comparison approach to two clinical HSV-1 strains isolated from the same patient. One of these strains was syncytial upon first culturing; its sequence revealed the same gB mutation. These data provide insight into the extent and origin of genome-wide intrastrain HSV-1 variation and present useful methods for expansion to in vivo patient infection studies.
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