Stobart CC, Sexton NR, Munjal H, Lu X, Molland KL, Tomar S, Mesecar AD, Denison MR. Chimeric Exchange of Coronavirus nsp5 Proteases (3CLpro) Identifies Common and Divergent Regulatory Determinants of Protease Activity. Journal of virology. 2013 Dec;87(87). 12611-8. PMID: 24027335 [PubMed]
Human coronaviruses (CoVs) such as severe acute respiratory syndrome CoV (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome CoV (MERS-CoV) cause epidemics of severe human respiratory disease. A conserved step of CoV replication is the translation and processing of replicase polyproteins containing 16 nonstructural protein domains (nsp's 1 to 16). The CoV nsp5 protease (3CLpro; Mpro) processes nsp's at 11 cleavage sites and is essential for virus replication. CoV nsp5 has a conserved 3-domain structure and catalytic residues. However, the intra- and intermolecular determinants of nsp5 activity and their conservation across divergent CoVs are unknown, in part due to challenges in cultivating many human and zoonotic CoVs. To test for conservation of nsp5 structure-function determinants, we engineered chimeric betacoronavirus murine hepatitis virus (MHV) genomes encoding nsp5 proteases of human and bat alphacoronaviruses and betacoronaviruses. Exchange of nsp5 proteases from HCoV-HKU1 and HCoV-OC43, which share the same genogroup, genogroup 2a, with MHV, allowed for immediate viral recovery with efficient replication albeit with impaired fitness in direct competition with wild-type MHV. Introduction of MHV nsp5 temperature-sensitive mutations into chimeric HKU1 and OC43 nsp5 proteases resulted in clear differences in viability and temperature-sensitive phenotypes compared with MHV nsp5. These data indicate tight genetic linkage and coevolution between nsp5 protease and the genomic background and identify differences in intramolecular networks regulating nsp5 function. Our results also provide evidence that chimeric viruses within coronavirus genogroups can be used to test nsp5 determinants of function and inhibition in common isogenic backgrounds and cell types.