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Published May 20, 2004 | public
Journal Article

Regulation of Semliki Forest virus RNA replication: a model for the control of alphavirus pathogenesis in invertebrate hosts


Alphavirus nonstructural proteins are translated as a polyprotein that is ultimately cleaved into four mature proteins called nsP1, nsP2, nsP3, and nsP4 from their order in the polyprotein. The role of this nonstructural polyprotein, of cleavage intermediates, and of mature proteins in synthesis of Semliki Forest virus (SFV) RNA has been studied using mutants unable to cleave one or more of the sites in the nonstructural polyprotein or that had the arginine sense codon between nsP3 and nsP4 changed to an opal termination codon. The results were compared with those obtained for Sindbis virus (SINV), which has a naturally occurring opal codon between nsP2 and nsP3. We found that (1) an active nonstructural protease in nsP2 is required for RNA synthesis. This protease is responsible for all three cleavages in the nonstructural polyprotein. (2) Cleavage between nsP3 and nsP4 (the viral RNA polymerase) is required for RNA synthesis by SFV. (3) SFV mutants that are able to produce only polyprotein P123 and nsP4 synthesize minus-strand RNA early after infection as efficiently as SF wild type but are defective in the synthesis of plus-strand RNA. The presence of sense or opal following nsP3 did not affect this result. At 30 °C, they give rise to low yields of virus after a delay, but at 39°C, they are nonviable. (4) SFV mutants that produce nsP1, P23, nsP4, as well as the precursor P123 are viable but produce an order of magnitude less virus than wild type at 30 °C and two orders of magnitude less virus at 39°C. The ratio of subgenomic mRNA to genomic RNA is much reduced in these mutants relative to the parental viruses. (5) At 30°C, the variants containing an opal codon grow as well as or slightly better than the corresponding virus with a sense codon. At 39 °C, however, the opal variants produce significantly more virus. These results support the conclusion that SFV and SINV, and by extension all alphaviruses, regulate their RNA synthesis in the same fashion after infection. P123 and nsP4 form a minus-strand replicase that synthesizes plus-strand RNA only inefficiently, especially at the higher temperatures found in mammals and birds. A replicase containing nsP1, P23, and nsP4 can make both plus and minus strands, but prefers the promoter for genomic plus sense RNA to that for subgenomic mRNA. The fully cleaved replicase can make only plus-strand RNA, and prefers the promoter for subgenomic mRNA to that for genomic RNA. Alphaviruses alternate between infection of hematophagous arthropods and higher vertebrates. Although the infection of higher vertebrates is acute and often accompanied by disease, continuing transmission of the virus in nature requires that infection of arthropods be persistent and relatively asymptomatic. We propose that this mechanism for control of RNA synthesis evolved to moderate the pathogenicity of the viruses in their arthropod hosts.

Additional Information

© 2004 Elsevier Inc. Received 12 November 2003; received in revised form 30 December 2003; accepted 16 March 2004. This work was supported by NIH Grant AI 20612. T.R. was supported by a fellowship from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

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