Coronavirus (CoV) nonstructural protein 14 (nsp14) is a 60-kDa protein encoded by the replicase gene that is part of the replication-transcription complex. It is a bifunctional enzyme bearing 3′-to-5′ exoribonuclease (ExoN) and guanine-N7-methyltransferase (N7-MTase) activities. ExoN hydrolyzes single-stranded RNAs and double-stranded RNAs (dsRNAs) and is part of a proofreading system responsible for the high fidelity of CoV replication. nsp14 N7-MTase activity is required for viral mRNA cap synthesis and prevents the recognition of viral mRNAs as “non-self” by the host cell. In this work, a set of point mutants affecting different motifs within the ExoN domain of nsp14 was generated, using transmissible gastroenteritis virus as a model of Alphacoronavirus. Mutants lacking ExoN activity were nonviable despite being competent in both viral RNA and protein synthesis. A specific mutation within zinc finger 1 (ZF-C) led to production of a viable virus with growth and viral RNA synthesis kinetics similar to that of the parental virus. Mutant recombinant transmissible gastroenteritis virus (TGEV) ZF-C (rTGEV-ZF-C) caused decreased cytopathic effect and apoptosis compared with the wild-type virus and reduced levels of dsRNA accumulation at late times postinfection. Consequently, the mutant triggered a reduced antiviral response, which was confirmed by evaluating different stages of the dsRNA-induced antiviral pathway. The expression of beta interferon (IFN-β), tumor necrosis factor (TNF), and interferon-stimulated genes in cells infected with mutant rTGEV-ZF-C was reduced compared to the levels seen with the parental virus. Overall, our data revealed a potential role for CoV nsp14 in modulation of the innate immune response.
Serial passage of viruses in cell culture has been traditionally used to attenuate virulence and identify determinants of viral pathogenesis. In a previous study, we found that a strain of Schmallenberg virus (SBV) serially passaged in tissue culture (termed SBVp32) unexpectedly displayed increased pathogenicity in suckling mice compared to wild-type SBV. In this study, we mapped the determinants of SBVp32 virulence to the viral genome M segment. SBVp32 virulence is associated with the capacity of this virus to reach high titers in the brains of experimentally infected suckling mice. We also found that the Gc glycoprotein, encoded by the M segment of SBVp32, facilitates host cell protein shutoff in vitro. Interestingly, while the M segment of SBVp32 is a virulence factor, we found that the S segment of the same virus confers by itself an attenuated phenotype to wild-type SBV, as it has lost the ability to block the innate immune system of the host. Single mutations present in the Gc glycoprotein of SBVp32 are sufficient to compensate for both the attenuated phenotype of the SBVp32 S segment and the attenuated phenotype of NSs deletion mutants. Our data also indicate that the SBVp32 M segment does not act as an interferon (IFN) antagonist. Therefore, SBV mutants can retain pathogenicity even when they are unable to fully control the production of IFN by infected cells. Overall, this study suggests that the viral glycoprotein of orthobunyaviruses can compensate, at least in part, for the function of NSs. In addition, we also provide evidence that the induction of total cellular protein shutoff by SBV is determined by multiple viral proteins, while the ability to control the production of IFN maps to the NSs protein.
Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) is not efficiently transmitted between humans, but it is highly prevalent in dromedary camels. Here we report that the MERS-CoV receptor—dipeptidyl peptidase 4 (DPP4)—is expressed in the upper respiratory tract epithelium of camels but not in that of humans. Lack of DPP4 expression may be the primary cause of limited MERS-CoV replication in the human upper respiratory tract and hence restrict transmission.