Despite utilizing the same avian hosts and mosquito vectors, St Louis encephalitis virus (SLEV) and West Nile virus (WNV) display dissimilar vector-infectivity and vertebrate-pathogenic phenotypes. SLEV exhibits a low oral infection threshold for Culex mosquito vectors and is avirulent in avian hosts, producing low-magnitude viraemias. In contrast, WNV is less orally infective to mosquitoes and elicits high-magnitude viraemias in a wide range of avian species. In order to identify the genetic determinants of these different phenotypes and to assess the utility of mosquito and vertebrate cell lines for recapitulating in vivo differences observed between these viruses, reciprocal WNV and SLEV pre-membrane and envelope protein (prME) chimeric viruses were generated and growth of these mutant viruses was characterized in mammalian (Vero), avian (duck) and mosquito [Aedes (C6/36) and Culex (CT)] cells. In both vertebrate lines, WNV grew to 100-fold higher titres than SLEV, and growth and cytopathogenicity phenotypes, determined by chimeric phenotypes, were modulated by genetic elements outside the prME gene region. Both chimeras exhibited distinctive growth patterns from those of SLEV in C6/36 cells, indicating the role of both structural and non-structural gene regions for growth in this cell line. In contrast, growth of chimeric viruses was indistinguishable from that of virus containing homologous prME genes in CT cells, indicating that structural genetic elements could specifically dictate growth differences of these viruses in relevant vectors. These data provide genetic insight into divergent enzootic maintenance strategies that could also be useful for the assessment of emergence mechanisms of closely related flaviviruses.
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