Gene expression of nonsegmented negative-sense RNA viruses involves sequential synthesis of monocistronic mRNAs and transcriptional attenuation at gene borders resulting in a transcript gradient. To address the role of the heterogeneous rabies virus (RV) intergenic regions (IGRs) in transcription attenuation, we constructed bicistronic model RNAs in which two reporter genes are separated by the RV N/P gene border. Replacement of the 2-nucleotide (nt) N/P IGR with the 5-nt IGRs from the P/M or M/G border resulted in attenuation of downstream gene transcription to 78 or 81%, respectively. A severe attenuation to 11% was observed for the 24-nt G/L border. This indicated that attenuation in RV is correlated with the length of the IGR, and, in particular, severe downregulation of the L (polymerase) gene by the 24 nt IGR. By reverse genetics, we recovered viable RVs in which the strongly attenuating G/L gene border of wild-type (wt) RV (SAD L16) was replaced with N/P-derived gene borders (SAD T and SAD T2). In these viruses, transcription of L mRNA was enhanced by factors of 1.8 and 5.1, respectively, resulting in exaggerated general gene expression, faster growth, higher virus titers, and induction of cytopathic effects in cell culture. The major role of the IGR in attenuation was further confirmed by reintroduction of the wt 24-nt IGR into SAD T, resulting in a ninefold drop of L mRNA. The ability to modulate RV gene expression by altering transcriptional attenuation is an advantage in the study of virus protein functions and in the development of gene delivery vectors
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