The discovery that measles virus (MV) uses the adherens junction protein nectin-4 as its epithelial receptor provides a new vantage point from which to characterize its rapid spread in the airway epithelium. We show here that in well-differentiated primary cultures of airway epithelial cells from human donors (HAE), MV infectious centers form rapidly and become larger than those of other respiratory pathogens: human respiratory syncytial virus, parainfluenza virus 5, and Sendai virus. While visible syncytia do not form after MV infection of HAE, the cytoplasm of an infected cell suddenly flows into an adjacent cell, as visualized through wild-type MV-expressed cytoplasmic green fluorescent protein (GFP). High-resolution video microscopy documents that GFP flows through openings that form on the lateral surfaces between columnar epithelial cells. To assess the relevance of the protein afadin, which connects nectin-4 to the actin cytoskeleton, we knocked down its mRNA. This resulted in more-limited infectious-center formation. We also generated a nectin-4 mutant without the afadin-binding site in its cytoplasmic tail. This mutant was less effective than wild-type human nectin-4 at promoting MV infection in primary cultures of porcine airway epithelia. Thus, in airway epithelial cells, MV spread requires the nectin-4/afadin complex and is based on cytoplasm transfer between columnar cells. Since the viral membrane fusion apparatus may open the passages that allow cytoplasm transfer, we refer to them as intercellular membrane pores. Virus-induced intercellular pores may contribute to extremely efficient measles contagion by promoting the rapid spread of the virus through the upper respiratory epithelium.
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