The tetraspanin CD81 is a host factor for Chikungunya virus replication
Chikungunya virus (CHIKV) is an arthritogenic reemerging virus replicating in plasma membrane-derived compartments termed "spherules." Here, we identify the human transmembrane protein CD81 as host factor required for CHIKV replication. Ablation of CD81 results in decreased CHIKV permissiveness, while overexpression enhances infection. CD81 is dispensable for virus uptake but critically required for viral genome replication. Likewise, murine CD81 is crucial for CHIKV permissiveness and is expressed in target cells such as dermal fibroblasts, muscle and liver cells. Whereas related alphaviruses, including Ross River virus (RRV), Semliki Forest virus (SFV), Sindbis virus (SINV) and Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus (VEEV), also depend on CD81 for infection, RNA viruses from other families, such as coronaviruses, replicate independently of CD81. Strikingly, the replication-enhancing function of CD81 is linked to cholesterol binding. These results define a mechanism exploited by alphaviruses to hijack the membrane microdomain-modeling protein CD81 for virus replication through interaction with cholesterol. IMPORTANCE In this study, we discover the tetraspanin CD81 as a host factor for the globally emerging chikungunya virus and related alphaviruses. We show that CD81 promotes replication of viral genomes in human and mouse cells, while virus entry into cells is independent of CD81. This provides novel insights into how alphaviruses hijack host proteins to complete their life cycle. Alphaviruses replicate at distinct sites of the plasma membrane, which are enriched in cholesterol. We found that the cholesterol-binding ability of CD81 is important for its function as an alphavirus host factor. This discovery thus broadens our understanding of the alphavirus replication process and the use of host factors to reprogram cells into virus replication factories.