Role of the coronavirus membrane protein in virus assembly

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Coronaviruses are medically important viruses that cause respiratory and enteric infections in humans and animals. The recent emergence through interspecies transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) strongly supports

Coronaviruses are medically important viruses that cause respiratory and enteric infections in humans and animals. The recent emergence through interspecies transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) strongly supports the need for development of vaccines and antiviral reagents. Understanding the molecular details of virus assembly is an attractive target for development of such therapeutics. Coronavirus membrane (M) proteins constitute the bulk of the viral envelope and play key roles in assembly, through M-M, M-spike (S) and M-nucleocapsid (N) interactions. M proteins have three transmembrane domains, flanked by a short amino-terminal domain and a long carboxy-terminal tail located outside and inside the virions, respectively. Two domains are apparent in the long tail - a conserved region (CD) at the amino end and a hydrophilic, charged carboxy-terminus (HD). We hypothesized that both domains play functionally important roles during assembly. A series of changes were introduced in the domains and the functional impacts were studied in the context of the virus and during virus-like particle (VLP) assembly. Positive charges in the CD gave rise to viruses with neutral residue replacements that exhibited a wild-type phenotype. Expression of the mutant proteins showed that neutral, but not positive, charges formed VLPs and coexpression with N increased output. Alanine substitutions resulted in viruses with crippled phenotypes and proteins that failed to assemble VLPs or to be rescued into the envelope. These viruses had partially compensating changes in M. Changes in the HD identified a cluster of three key positive charges. Viruses could not be recovered with negatively charged amino acid substitutions at two of the positions. While viruses were recovered with a negative charge substitution at one of the positions, these exhibited a severely crippled phenotype. Crippled mutants displayed a reduction in infectivity. Results overall provide new insight into the importance of the M tail in virus assembly. The CD is involved in fundamental M-M interactions required for envelope formation. These interactions appear to be stabilized through interactions with the N protein. Positive charges in the HD also play an important role in assembly of infectious particles.