Characterization of ALTO-encoding circular RNAs expressed by Merkel cell polyomavirus and trichodysplasia spinulosa polyomavirus

Rong Yang, Eunice E. Lee, Jiwoong Kim, Joon H. Choi, Elysha Kolitz, Yating Chen, Clair Crewe, Nicholas J.H. Salisbury, Philipp E. Schereri, Clay Cockerell, Taylor R. Smith, Leslie Rosen, Louisa Verlinden, Denise A. Galloway, Christopher B. Buck, Mariet C. Feltkamp, Christopher S. Sullivan, Richard C. Wang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Circular RNAs (circRNAs) are a conserved class of RNAs with diverse functions, including serving as messenger RNAs that are translated into peptides. Here we describe circular RNAs generated by human polyomaviruses (HPyVs), some of which encode variants of the previously described alternative large T antigen open reading frame (ALTO) protein. Circular ALTO RNAs (circALTOs) can be detected in virus positive Merkel cell carcinoma (VP-MCC) cell lines and tumor samples. CircALTOs are stable, predominantly located in the cytoplasm, and N6-methyladenosine (m6A) modified. The translation of MCPyV circALTOs into ALTO protein is negatively regulated by MCPyV-generated miRNAs in cultured cells. MCPyV ALTO expression increases transcription from some recombinant promoters in vitro and upregulates the expression of multiple genes previously implicated in MCPyV pathogenesis. MCPyV circALTOs are enriched in exosomes derived from VP-MCC lines and circALTO-transfected 293T cells, and purified exosomes can mediate ALTO expression and transcriptional activation in MCPyV-negative cells. The related trichodysplasia spinulosa polyomavirus (TSPyV) also expresses a circALTO that can be detected in infected tissues and produces ALTO protein in cultured cells. Thus, human polyomavirus circRNAs are expressed in human tumors and infected tissues and express proteins that have the potential to modulate the infectious and tumorigenic properties of these viruses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1009582
JournalPLoS pathogens
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Parasitology
  • Microbiology
  • Immunology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Virology


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