Grace Roberts

Investigating the role of the nsP3 macro domain in Chikungunya virus replication

Chikungunya virus (CHIKV) is an Alphavirus, was first detected in Tanzania in 1952 and is currently endemic in Africa, Asia and, more recently, South America. It has recently caused several large outbreaks in naïve populations, most notably on La Reunion and in the Caribbean.

CHIKV is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito which is mainly limited to warm, moist climates. However recently, a mutation in the CHIKV glycoprotein has allowed spread by the Aedes albopictus mosquito which can tolerate more temperate climates allowing further spread of CHIKV to Europe and North America. Infection presents as an extreme fever, rash and debilitating joint pain that can persist for years. Currently, there is no treatment or vaccine for CHIKV.

CHIKV is a small, enveloped, positive-sense single-stranded RNA virus that expresses four non-structural proteins (nsPs). As with all Alphaviruses, non-structural protein-3 (nsP3) contains three domains; an N-terminal macro domain, an alphavirus unique domain (AUD) and a variable region at the C-terminus. Little is known of the function of nsP3 but it is essential for replication of the viral genome. Despite macro domains being present in most species on earth, and multiple other viruses (e.g. SARS, rubella and hepatitis B) its function is still unclear.

The aim of my project is to determine the function of the macro domain of the CHIKV nsP3 in the virus lifecycle in both host (mammalian) and vector (insect) cells. This could lead to elucidating the function of other viral macro domains and potentially lead to drug discovery.

Personal bio:

I’m originally from Nottingham and it was at High Pavement 6th Form College where I realised how much I liked science – I hadn’t really enjoyed it that much at secondary school! I originally thought I wanted to study medicine but through a chance meeting at an open day at the University of Leeds I became interested in microbiology.

I graduated with a degree in Microbiology with Virology in 2013 from the University of Leeds. As part of my degree, I did an industrial placement at CTDS, a veterinary diagnostic laboratory. After graduating, I worked as a technician for Centre for Research into Environment and Health (CREH) looking into the quality of water samples, mainly from environmental sources such as rivers and beaches. I moved on to work as a research technician for the Breast Cancer Campaign Tissue Bank where I processed and stored patient samples for use in research, as well as conduct my own research into forming 3D cell culture models of breast cancer. I then started my PhD in 2014 – I had a lot of experience in other fields from my various jobs but still really wanted to study viruses so I feel quite lucky to be here!

Outside work, I enjoy climbing and running. I really like the outdoors where I do a lot of hiking and love to explore castles and historical sites. I also love going to gigs and finding new music to listen to. I also really enjoy public engagement of science – explaining what we do every day to the public. I especially like working with school children as they find it really exciting! I feel like I didn’t do a lot of hands on science when I was in school so it’s really nice to give them that opportunity and I hope it encourages them to keep interested in science as they get older.