Dengue virus (DENV) and West Nile virus (WNV) are arthropod-transmitted flaviviruses that cause systemic vascular leakage and encephalitis syndromes, respectively, in humans. However, the viral factors contributing to these specific clinical disorders are not completely understood. Flavivirus nonstructural protein 1 (NS1) is required for replication, expressed on the cell surface, and secreted as a soluble glycoprotein, reaching high levels in the blood of infected individuals. Extracellular DENV NS1 and WNV NS1 interact with host proteins and cells, have immune evasion functions, and promote endothelial dysfunction in a tissue-specific manner. To characterize how differences in DENV NS1 and WNV NS1 might function in pathogenesis, we generated WNV NS1 variants with substitutions corresponding to residues found in DENV NS1. We discovered that the substitution NS1-P101K led to reduced WNV infectivity in the brain and attenuated lethality in infected mice, although the virus replicated efficiently in cell culture and peripheral organs and bound at wild-type levels to brain endothelial cells and complement components. The P101K substitution resulted in reduced NS1 antigenemia in mice, and this was associated with reduced WNV spread to the brain. Because exogenous administration of NS1 protein rescued WNV brain infectivity in mice, we conclude that circulating WNV NS1 facilitates viral dissemination into the central nervous system and impacts disease outcomes. IMPORTANCE Flavivirus NS1 serves as an essential scaffolding molecule during virus replication but also is expressed on the cell surface and is secreted as a soluble glycoprotein that circulates in the blood of infected individuals. Although extracellular forms of NS1 are implicated in immune modulation and in promoting endothelial dysfunction at blood-tissue barriers, it has been challenging to study specific effects of NS1 on pathogenesis without disrupting its key role in virus replication. Here, we assessed WNV NS1 variants that do not affect virus replication and evaluated their effects on pathogenesis in mice. Our characterization of WNV NS1-P101K suggests that the levels of NS1 in the circulation facilitate WNV dissemination to the brain and affect disease outcomes. Our findings facilitate understanding of the role of NS1 during flavivirus infection and support antiviral strategies for targeting circulating forms of NS1.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere00844-21
JournalJournal of virology
Issue number20
StatePublished - Oct 2021


  • Animal model
  • Dissemination
  • Endothelial cells
  • Flavivirus
  • Viral pathogenesis
  • Virology


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