Positive-strand RNA viruses replicate their genomes in membrane-bound replication compartments. Brome mosaic virus (BMV) replicates in vesicular invaginations of the endoplasmic reticulum membrane. BMV has served as a productive model system to study processes like virus-host interactions, RNA replication and recombination. Here we present multiple lines of evidence showing that the structure of the viral RNA replication compartments plays a fundamental role and that recruitment of parental RNAs to a common replication compartment is a limiting step in intermolecular RNA recombination. We show that a previously defined requirement for an RNA recruitment element on both parental RNAs is not to function as a preferred crossover site, but in order for individual RNAs to be recruited into the replication compartments. Moreover, modulating the form of the replication compartments from spherular vesicles (spherules) to more expansive membrane layers increased intermolecular RNA recombination frequency by 200- to 1000-fold. We propose that intermolecular RNA recombination requires parental RNAs to be recruited into replication compartments as monomers, and that recruitment of multiple RNAs into a contiguous space is much more common for layers than for spherules. These results could explain differences in recombination frequencies between viruses that replicate in association with smaller spherules versus larger double-membrane vesicles and convoluted membranes.
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