Single-cell analysis of arthritogenic alphavirus-infected human synovial fibroblasts links low abundance of viral RNA to induction of innate immunity and arthralgia-associated gene expression


  • F. Pott
  • D. Postmus
  • R.J.P. Brown
  • E. Wyler
  • E. Neumann
  • M. Landthaler
  • C. Goffinet


  • Emerging Microbes & Infections


  • Emerg Microbes Infect 10 (1): 2151-2168


  • Infection by (re-)emerging RNA arboviruses including Chikungunya virus (CHIKV) and Mayaro virus primarily cause acute febrile disease and transient polyarthralgia. However, in a significant subset of infected individuals, debilitating arthralgia persists for weeks over months up to years. The underlying immunopathogenesis of chronification of arthralgia upon primary RNA-viral infection remains unclear. Here, we analyzed cell-intrinsic responses to ex vivo arthritogenic alphaviral infection of primary human synovial fibroblasts isolated from knee joints, one the most affected joint types during acute and chronic CHIKV disease. Synovial fibroblasts were susceptible and permissive to alphaviral infection. Base-line and exogenously added type I interferon (IFN) partially and potently restricted infection, respectively. RNA-seq revealed a CHIKV infection-induced transcriptional profile that comprised upregulation of expression of several hundred IFN-stimulated and arthralgia-mediating genes. Single-cell virus-inclusive RNA-seq uncovered a fine-tuned switch from induction to repression of cell-intrinsic immune responses depending on the abundance of viral RNA in an individual cell. Specifically, responses were most pronounced in cells displaying low-to-intermediate amounts of viral RNA and absence of virus-encoded, fluorescent reporter protein expression, arguing for efficient counteraction of innate immunity in cells expressing viral antagonists at sufficient quantities. In summary, cell-intrinsic sensing of viral RNA that potentially persists or replicates at low levels in synovial fibroblasts and other target cell types ex vivo may contribute to the chronic arthralgia induced by alphaviral infections. Our findings might advance our understanding of the immunopathophysiology of long-term pathogenesis of RNA-viral infections.