Sindbis virus (SINV) can infect neurons and cause encephalomyelitis in mice. Nonstructural proteins are translated from genomic RNA and structural proteins from subgenomic RNA. While visualization of viral proteins in living cells is well developed, imaging of viral RNAs has been challenging. RNA aptamers that bind and activate conditional fluorophores provide a tool for RNA visualization. We incorporated cassettes of two F30-scaffolded dimers of the Broccoli aptamer into a SINV cDNA clone using sites in nsP3 (genomic RNA), the 3′UTR (genomic and subgenomic RNAs) and after a second subgenomic promoter resulting in 4–28 Broccoli copies. After addition of the cell-permeable 3,5-difluoro-4-hydroxybenzylidene imidazolinone (DFHBI-1T) conditional fluorophore and laser excitation, infected cells emitted green fluorescence that correlated with Broccoli copy numbers. All recombinant viruses replicated well in BHK and undifferentiated neural cells but viruses with 14 or more Broccoli copies were attenuated in differentiated neurons and mice. The signal survived fixation and allowed visualization of viral RNAs in differentiated neurons and mouse brain, as well as BHK cells. Subgenomic RNA was diffusely distributed in the cytoplasm with genomic RNA also in perinuclear vesicle-like structures near envelope glycoproteins or mitochondria. Broccoli aptamer-tagging provides a valuable tool for live cell imaging of viral RNA.
ASJC Scopus subject areas