Research Article: Extracellular Vesicles and Their Convergence with Viral Pathways

Date Published: July 25, 2012

Publisher: Hindawi Publishing Corporation

Author(s): Thomas Wurdinger, NaTosha N. Gatson, Leonora Balaj, Balveen Kaur, Xandra O. Breakefield, D. Michiel Pegtel.


Extracellular vesicles (microvesicles), such as exosomes and shed microvesicles, contain a variety of molecules including proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids. Microvesicles appear mostly to originate from multivesicular bodies or to bud from the plasma membrane. Here, we review the convergence of microvesicle biogenesis and aspects of viral assembly and release pathways. Herpesviruses and retroviruses, amongst others, recruit several elements from the microvesicle biogenesis pathways for functional virus release. In addition, noninfectious pleiotropic virus-like vesicles can be released, containing viral and cellular components. We highlight the heterogeneity of microvesicle function during viral infection, addressing microvesicles that can either block or enhance infection, or cause immune dysregulation through bystander action in the immune system. Finally, endogenous retrovirus and retrotransposon elements deposited in our genomes millions of years ago can be released from cells within microvesicles, suggestive of a viral origin of the microvesicle system or perhaps of an evolutionary conserved system of virus-vesicle codependence. More research is needed to further elucidate the complex function of the various microvesicles produced during viral infection, possibly revealing new therapeutic intervention strategies.

Partial Text

A wide variety of vesicles are actively released from living cells into the extracellular space with their contents reflecting the cellular composition and physiologic state (for review see [1–3]). Over the years, the different types of extracellular vesicles have been given a variety of names, including exosomes, shed microvesicles, ectosomes, microparticles, virosomes, virus-like particles, and oncosomes. The distinguishing features of each of the vesicle subtypes and the correct nomenclature are currently under intense study. Here, we will refer to them under the general term, microvesicles. Microvesicles carry RNA [mRNA, microRNA (miRNA), and noncoding sequences], cDNA and genomic sequences, and a large component of proteins and lipids (see reviews above, as well as [4, 5]). Upon release these microvesicles can move within the extracellular space and are either taken up by neighboring cells or degraded. They can also enter adjoining bodily fluids, such as the systemic circulation and travel to distant sites. In fact, they have been found in abundance in blood (serum and plasma), urine, breast milk, sweat, saliva, ascites fluid, and cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) [3–7]. At least two distinct release mechanisms for microvesicles have been described for two subtypes: (1) exosomes—derived from the multivesicular body (MVB) and (2) shed microvesicles—derived from the plasma membrane. Interestingly, both mechanisms have considerable overlap with virus release and biogenesis (summarized in Figure 1 and further discussed below).

Microvesicular shedding of cellular membrane components and the release of internal endosomal-derived exosomes are important for cellular communication and modulation of immune responses [9, 54–57] (Table 1). While release of microvesicles has been extensively investigated, recently the challenge has been to uncover the specific mechanisms that guide protein sorting and complexing into shed microvesicles and exosomes in various cell types. Cells have been reported to secrete highly specified microvesicles after infectious exposure or under various cell activation conditions [5, 54, 56, 58]. Through the packaging and transfer of functional proteins, mRNA/miRNA, and other cytosolic components, microvesicles have been found to be beneficial either to the host cell or to the infectious agent [37, 43]. Virus-infected cells proved useful in early studies to elucidate the role of microvesicular shedding in intercellular communication [55, 56]. Amongst the most extensively studied viruses with respect to microvesicles are herpes simplex virus (HSV), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and the tumorigenic herpes virus, Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). Each virus possesses unique properties that afford protection from immune attack. Here, we outline the important immune modulatory steps involved in virus-induced microvesicle sorting and release in these and other related viruses. Preservation of the virus depends on microvesicle release of infected cells. Microvesicles released by infected cells contain specific components of the cell and the virus, many of which facilitate the ability of virions to persist in a hostile antiviral immune environment [44, 55, 56, 58]. Depending on the virus type, and, in some cases, the stage in the viral cycle, intercellular processes are well orchestrated to produce specific cellular and immune outcomes [56]: (1) evading the host immune system, (2) invasion, (3) replication, and (4) persistence (summarized in part in Figure 2 and further discussed below).

Several human pathogenic viruses are known for their ability to lie dormant in the host immune system, of which HSV and EBV are perhaps the best known examples. In the case of HSV this is due to the ability of the virus to enter a latent state in the nucleus of sensory neurons during which it expresses no viral antigens and does not disturb the physiology of the neurons. In latency a single transcript is generated which encodes a precursor for four distinct HSV, miRNAs which act to suppress virus replication [67]. For human herpesvirus 4 (HHV4), better known as EBV, this is largely due to incomplete eradication of the virus after early primary infection.

HIV [56, 89–91] has been a discussion topic in the microvesicle field for many years. Not only has it been hypothesized that HIV itself may have microvesicle features, but microvesicles also have been described to have immune modulatory functions on HIV-infected cells and to expand the infectivity of HIV.

Retrotransposon elements such as LINE, Alu, and human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) make up about 45% of the human genome and have played an important role in genome evolution [122]. These viral-like elements infected germ cells in the human genome millions of years ago and then became a stable part of the inherited genetic material. Although most LINE elements are inactive, a number of active ones remain and are able to “jump” to new locations in the genome, contributing to genomic instability [123]. These events can have important effects on our genome, for example, by inactivating genes, altering gene expression and facilitating random insertion of new cDNA copies in the genome, as in integration of pseudogenes [124]. Many tumor cells also release retroviral-like microvesicles that contain active retrotransposon sequences, such as HERV-K [125].

In summary, this review deals with how extracellular vesicles—such as exosomes and shed microvesicles—share pathways with the assembly and release of retrotransposon elements and viruses. In Figure 1 we summarize how herpesviruses such as EBV and HSV, originate from the nucleus and can merge with microvesicle pathways. Several proteins used for exosome production are used by herpesviruses for functional release. Also, the convergence of these pathways may explain the observations of virus-like particles, which can be exosomes or shed microvesicles containing viral proteins or nucleic acids. Similar observations have been made for retroviruses and retrotransposon elements with circulating microvesicles containing retrotransposon RNA found in some cancer patients. It remains to be investigated to what extent exosomes and shed microvesicles are remnants of previous retroviral colonization. In this review we note the observations of retroviral as well as retrotransposon elements in microvesicles, perhaps allowing further dissemination of such nucleic acid sequences. The use of microvesicle pathway elements by viruses such as HIV may be suggestive of an intricate coevolution of different endogenous and exogenous (retro)virus subtypes. Viruses not only use microvesicle pathways for their own assembly and release but are also capable of exploiting the highly complex microvesicle communication system in an intercellular setting as simplified in Figure 2. During viral infection microvesicles can have various effects on different types of cells, either limiting viral infection or enhancing it. Thus, a picture is emerging that viruses and microvesicles are codependent pleiotropic entities. More research is needed into the differential functions of different subtypes of microvesicles and their cross-talk in relation to the immune response and outcome of viral infection.