Recombination is a process of extensive genetic exchange that is known to contribute to virus evolution and has been frequently observed in positive-sense RNA viruses. Zika virus (ZIKV) is an emerging arbovirus of the family with two distinct lineages – African and Asian. While some phylogenetic evidence suggests that recombination in the envelope-encoding region of the ZIKV genome has occurred during evolution, there has been no experimental evidence for ZIKV recombination to date. We conducted co-infections of mammalian and insect cells, using the prototype African ZIKV strain (MR766) and an Asian isolate from the 2015-16 ZIKV outbreak in Brazil (BeH819015), and used a recombinant-specific PCR assay to detect recombinant sequences from total cell RNA extracts. In brief, a 564bp fragment spanning the boundary between the structural and the non-structural genes of the viral genome was amplified using a primer pair consisting of an Asian-specific and an African-specific primer. A total of 24 individual sequences were screened. All were in-frame recombinants and they formed 10 unique junctions. Several of the detected recombinant sequences were chosen for construction of full-length infectious clones to test the viability and phenotype of the recombinant viruses. This study represents the first isolation of recombinant ZIKV sequences from co-infected cultured cells and demonstrates the capacity of ZIKV to recombine in an experimental system. Further investigation is required to better understand the evolutionary potential of this mechanism and its putative role in the emergence of ZIKV.


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