While primarily a mosquito-borne virus, Zika virus (ZIKV; genus Flavivirus in the Flaviviridae family) is capable of being sexually transmitted. Thirty to fifty percent of men with confirmed ZIKV infection shed ZIKV RNA in their semen, and prolonged viral RNA shedding in semen can occur for more than 6 months. The cellular reservoir of ZIKV in semen is unknown, although spermatozoa have been shown to contain ZIKV RNA and antigen. Yet, spermatozoa are not a requisite for sexual transmission, as at least one case of ZIKV sexual transmission involved a vasectomized man. To determine the cellular reservoirs of ZIKV in semen, an established animal model of sexual transmission was used. The majority of virus detected in the seminal fluid of infected mice during the peak timing of sexual transmission was from the supernatant fraction, suggesting cell-free ZIKV may be largely responsible for sexual transmission. However, some ZIKV RNA was cell-associated. In the testes and epididymides of infected mice, intracellular staining of ZIKV RNA was more pronounced in spermatogenic precursors (spermatocytes and spermatogonia) than in spermatids. Visualization of intracellular negative strand ZIKV RNA demonstrated ZIKV replication intermediates in leukocytes, immature spermatids and epididymal epithelial cells in the male urogenital tract. Epididymal epithelial cells were the principal source of negative-strand ZIKV RNA during the peak timing of sexual transmission potential, indicating these cells may be the predominant source of infectious cell-free ZIKV in seminal fluid. These data promote a more complete understanding of sexual transmission of ZIKV and will inform further model development for future studies on persistent ZIKV RNA shedding.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
- Infectious Diseases