Sexton NR, Smith EC, Blanc H, Vignuzzi M, Peersen OB, Denison MR. Homology-Based Identification of a Mutation in the Coronavirus RNA-Dependent RNA Polymerase That Confers Resistance to Multiple Mutagens. Journal of virology. 2016 Aug 15;90(90). 7415-28. PMID: 27279608 [PubMed]
Positive-sense RNA viruses encode RNA-dependent RNA polymerases (RdRps) essential for genomic replication. With the exception of the large nidoviruses, such as coronaviruses (CoVs), RNA viruses lack proofreading and thus are dependent on RdRps to control nucleotide selectivity and fidelity. CoVs encode a proofreading exonuclease in nonstructural protein 14 (nsp14-ExoN), which confers a greater-than-10-fold increase in fidelity compared to other RNA viruses. It is unknown to what extent the CoV polymerase (nsp12-RdRp) participates in replication fidelity. We sought to determine whether homology modeling could identify putative determinants of nucleotide selectivity and fidelity in CoV RdRps. We modeled the CoV murine hepatitis virus (MHV) nsp12-RdRp structure and superimposed it on solved picornaviral RdRp structures. Fidelity-altering mutations previously identified in coxsackie virus B3 (CVB3) were mapped onto the nsp12-RdRp model structure and then engineered into the MHV genome with [nsp14-ExoN(+)] or without [nsp14-ExoN(-)] ExoN activity. Using this method, we identified two mutations conferring resistance to the mutagen 5-fluorouracil (5-FU): nsp12-M611F and nsp12-V553I. For nsp12-V553I, we also demonstrate resistance to the mutagen 5-azacytidine (5-AZC) and decreased accumulation of mutations. Resistance to 5-FU, and a decreased number of genomic mutations, was effectively masked by nsp14-ExoN proofreading activity. These results indicate that nsp12-RdRp likely functions in fidelity regulation and that, despite low sequence conservation, some determinants of RdRp nucleotide selectivity are conserved across RNA viruses. The results also indicate that, with regard to nucleotide selectivity, nsp14-ExoN is epistatic to nsp12-RdRp, consistent with its proposed role in a multiprotein replicase-proofreading complex.