RNA-Seq of amniotic fluid cell-free RNA: a discovery phase study of the pathophysiology of congenital cytomegalovirus infection


      Congenital cytomegalovirus infection is the most common perinatal infection and a significant cause of sensorineural hearing loss, cerebral palsy, and neurodevelopmental disability. There is a paucity of human gene expression studies examining the pathophysiology of cytomegalovirus infection.


      This study aimed to perform a whole transcriptomic assessment of amniotic fluid from pregnancies with live fetuses to identify differentially expressed genes and enriched Gene Ontology categories associated with congenital cytomegalovirus infection.

      Study Design

      Amniotic fluid supernatant was prospectively collected from pregnant women undergoing amniocentesis for suspected congenital cytomegalovirus infection because of first-trimester maternal primary infection or ultrasound features suggestive of fetal infection. Women who had received therapy to prevent fetal infection were excluded. Congenital cytomegalovirus infection was diagnosed via viral polymerase chain reaction of amniotic fluid; cytomegalovirus-infected fetuses were paired with noninfected controls, matched for gestational age and fetal sex. Paired-end RNA sequencing was performed on amniotic fluid cell-free RNA with the Novaseq 6000 at a depth of 30 million reads per sample. Following quality control and filtering, reads were mapped to the human genome and counts summarized across genes. Differentially expressed genes were identified using 2 approaches: voomWithQualityWeights in conjunction with limma and RUVSeq with edgeR. Genes with a false discovery rate <0.05 were considered statistically significant. Differential exon use was analyzed using DEXSeq. Functional analysis was performed using gene set enrichment analysis and Ingenuity Pathway Analysis. Manual curation of differentially regulated genes was also performed.


      Amniotic fluid samples were collected from 50 women; 16 (32%) had congenital cytomegalovirus infection confirmed by polymerase chain reaction. After excluding 3 samples without matched controls, 13 cytomegalovirus-infected samples collected at 18 to 23 weeks and 13 cytomegalovirus-negative gestation-matched controls were submitted for RNA sequencing and analysis (N=26). Ten of the 13 pregnancies with cytomegalovirus-infected fetuses had amniocentesis because of serologic evidence of maternal primary infection with normal fetal ultrasound, and 3 had amniocentesis because of ultrasound abnormality suggestive of cytomegalovirus infection. Four cytomegalovirus-infected pregnancies ended in termination (n=3) or fetal death (n=1), and 9 resulted in live births. Pregnancy outcomes were available for 11 of the 13 cytomegalovirus-negative controls; all resulted in live births of clinically-well infants.
      Differential gene expression analysis revealed 309 up-regulated and 32 down-regulated genes in the cytomegalovirus-infected group compared with the cytomegalovirus-negative group. Gene set enrichment analysis showed significant enrichment of multiple Gene Ontology categories involving the innate immune response to viral infection and interferon signaling. Of the 32 significantly down-regulated genes, 8 were known to be involved in neurodevelopment and preferentially expressed by the brain. Six specific cellular restriction factors involved in host defense to cytomegalovirus infection were up-regulated in the cytomegalovirus-infected group. Ingenuity Pathway Analysis predicted the activation of pathways involved in progressive neurologic disease and inflammatory neurologic disease.


      In this next-generation sequencing study, we revealed new insights into the pathophysiology of congenital cytomegalovirus infection. These data on the up-regulation of the intraamniotic innate immune response to cytomegalovirus infection and the dysregulation of neurodevelopmental genes may inform future approaches to developing prognostic markers and assessing fetal responses to in utero therapy.

      Key words

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