SARS Coronavirus Replicative Enzymes: Structures and Mechanisms
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The SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV) replicase gene encodes 16 nonstructural proteins (nsps) with multiple enzymatic activities. Several of these enzymes are common components of replication complexes of other plus-strand RNA viruses, such as picornavirus 3C-like protease, papain-like protease, RNA-dependent RNA polymerase, RNA helicase, and ribose 2′-O-methyltransferase activities, while others such as exoribonuclease, endoribonuclease, and adenosine diphosphate-ribose 1″-phosphatase activities, are rarely or not conserved in viruses outside the order Nidovirales. The latter enzymes are believed to be involved in unique metabolic pathways used by coronaviruses to (1) replicate and transcribe their extremely large RNA genomes, and (2) interfere with cellular functions and antiviral host responses.
Since the global outbreak of SARS in 2003, major efforts have been made to elucidate the structures of the protein components of the SARS-CoV replication/transcription complex. Thus, in less than 5 years, the structures of as many as 16 SARS-CoV proteins or functional domains have been determined. Remarkably, eight of these 16 structures had novel folds, illustrating the uniqueness of the coronavirus replicative machinery. Furthermore, several new protein functions and potential drug targets have been identified in these studies. Current structural studies mainly focus on the few remaining proteins for which no structural information is available and larger protein complexes comprised of different nsps. The studies aim at obtaining detailed information on the functions and macromolecular assembly of the coronavirus replication/transcription machinery which, over a long period of time, may be used to develop selective antiviral drugs. This chapter reviews structural information on the SARS-CoV macro domain (ADRP) as well as nsps 7, 8, 9, and 15 and summarizes our current knowledge of active-site residues and intermolecular interactions of these proteins.
KeywordsElectrophoretic Mobility Shift Assay Rubella Virus Large Protein Complex Murine Hepatitis Virus Nsp10 Protein
7.1 The ADP-Ribose-1″-Phosphatase Domain
The SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV) ADP-ribose-1″-phosphatase (ADRP) is part of nonstructural protein nsp3, a large multidomain protein of 1,922 amino acids (Snijder et al. 2003; Thiel et al. 2003). The protein is thought to contain at least seven domains: (1) N-terminal Glu/Asp-rich domain (acidic domain, AD); (2) ADRP domain (also called macro domain or X domain); (3) SUD (for “SARS-CoV unique domain,” not conserved in other coronaviruses); (4) papain-like protease (PLpro), which cleaves the viral polyproteins at three N-proximal sites and also has deubiquitinating activity (Barretto et al. 2005; Harcourt et al. 2004; Lindner et al. 2005; Ratia et al. 2006; Thiel et al. 2003); (5) an uncharacterized domain possibly extending the papain-like protease domain (termed PLnc for papain-like noncanonical); (6) a transmembrane domain (Kanjanahaluethai et al. 2007) in the N-terminal region of the Y domain (Ziebuhr et al. 2001); and (7) the remainder of the Y domain which includes a number of conserved metal-binding residues.
Macro domains are conserved in a wide variety of bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes. The name macro domain refers to the early finding that members of this group of proteins are related to the nonhistone domain of the histone macroH2A (Pehrson and Fried 1992). Macro domains are also conserved in a number of positive-strand RNA viruses, including specific genera of the Nidovirales, members of the Togaviridae, Rubella virus and Hepatitis E virus (HEV) (Gorbalenya et al. 1991; Snijder et al. 2003). The biological role of macro domains in the life cycle of positive-strand RNA viruses has not been resolved. ADRP is a side-product of cellular pre-tRNA splicing, a pathway seemingly unrelated to viral RNA replication. ADRP activity was first identified for a macro domain homolog from yeast using a proteomics approach (Martzen et al. 1999) and subsequently demonstrated for other related proteins including homologs from three coronaviruses, HCoV-229E, TGEV, and SARS-CoV, as well as alphaviruses and HEV (Egloff et al. 2006; Putics et al. 2005, 2006). Inactivation of macro domain-associated ADRP activity in HCoV-229E did not affect viral genome replication and subgenomic RNA synthesis in cell culture, suggesting that the activity, which is conserved across members of the Coronaviridae, may have important functions in vivo, for example in evading antiviral host responses (Putics et al. 2005).
7.2 The nsp7–nsp8–nsp9–nsp10 Cistron
The nsp7 to nsp10 proteins are encoded by the 3′-terminal ORF1a region. The proteins are highly conserved amongst members of the genus Coronavirus and, albeit to a lesser extent, members of other genera within the Coronaviridae family. Interestingly, the proteins encoded in the equivalent 3′-terminal ORF1a region of arterivirus genomes do not appear to be closely related to the coronavirus nsp7 to nsp10 proteins (Pasternak et al. 2006), which may indicate differences in the structures, functions and subunit compositions of replication/transcription complexes between the various families within the order Nidovirales. Using a reverse genetics approach, nsp 7, 8, 9, and 10 were shown to be essential for replication of murine hepatitis virus (MHV) in cell culture (Deming et al. 2007). Deletion of any of the four proteins abolished RNA synthesis and, consequently, production of infectious virus progeny (Deming et al. 2007). The precise functions of the proteins in viral replication remain to be characterized.
7.2.1 The nsp7 Protein
In infected cells, coronavirus nsp7 and/or nsp7-containing precursors localize to cytoplasmic membrane structures which are thought to be the sites of viral replication (Bost et al. 2000; Ng et al. 2001). SARS-CoV nsp7 was shown to dimerize and interact with nsp5, nsp8 (see below), nsp9 and nsp13 (von Brunn et al. 2007; Zhai et al. 2005). Furthermore, the MHV nsp7 was shown to interact specifically with nsp1 and nsp10 (Brockway et al. 2004).
7.2.2 The nsp8 Protein
The α-helical fold seen in the previously reported NMR solution structure of nsp7 (Peti et al. 2005) was also seen in the crystal structure, where nsp7 was part of a complex with Nsp8. nsp8 was found to possess a novel fold with two slightly different conformations. One of the conformations was described as a “golf-club”-like structure composed of an N-terminal α-helical “shaft” domain and a C-terminal, mixed α/β “head” domain (Fig. 7.3b). The second conformation was described as resembling a golf club with a bent shaft, whereas the rest of the structure (particularly, the head domain) is very similar to the first structure (Fig. 7.3b). The eight nsp8 molecules constitute the framework of a large protein complex made up of “bricks” (nsp8) and “mortar” (nsp7), with nsp7 filling some of the remaining space between individual nsp8 molecules, thereby stabilizing the structure of the complex. Despite a number of intricate interactions between nsp7 and nsp8, the absence of nsp7 is not generally thought to markedly change the overall shape of the structure. On the basis of the architecture and electrostatic properties of the complex it was suggested that nsp7−nsp8 might function as a processivity factor, similar to bacterial (β2-clamp) or eukaryotic DNA polymerase processivity factors, such as PCNA (proliferating cell nuclear antigen).
This hypothesis was supported and significantly extended by data demonstrating that SARS-CoV nsp8 represents a second, noncanonical RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp) (Imbert et al. 2006). A recombinant form of the SARS-CoV nsp8 proved to be capable of synthesizing short oligonucleotides (<6 residues). It had relatively low fidelity and strongly preferred RNA with a 5′-(G/U)CC-3′ trinucleotide consensus sequence as a template. Three charged/polar residues, Lys-58, Lys-82 and Ser-85, all of them located in the N-terminal domain, were found to be essential for activity and may be part of a network of residues that catalyzes the phosphoryl transfer reaction. A structure and activity-based model of the nsp8-associated RdRp activity is presented in Fig. 7.3c,d. The structure of the C-terminal “head” domain of nsp8 appears to be distantly related to the catalytic palm subdomain of RNA virus RdRps. Moreover, it was shown that the “canonical” coronavirus RdRp domain residing in nsp12 contains a conserved sequence, called motif G, that is usually found in primer-dependent RNA polymerases (Gorbalenya et al. 2002). Taken together, the available information suggests that nsp8 may function as a primase to catalyze the synthesis of RNA primers to be used by the primer-dependent coronavirus nsp12 RdRp.
The presumed central role of nsp8 in coronavirus replication gains additional support by data suggesting that nsp8 interacts with a large number of SARS-CoV replicative proteins, including nsp2, nsp5 (3CLpro), nsp6, nsp7, nsp8, nsp9, nsp12 (RdRp), nsp13 (helicase), and nsp14 (exoribonuclease) (Imbert et al. 2008; von Brunn et al. 2007). Finally, an elegant MHV reverse genetics study provided evidence to suggest interactions between nsp8 (and also nsp9) with the 3′untranslated region, which is consistent with the proposed role of these proteins in coronavirus RNA synthesis, possibly the initiation of minus-strand RNA synthesis (Zust et al. 2008).
7.2.3 The nsp9 Protein
SARS-CoV nsp9 was shown to interact with nsp6, nsp7 and nsp8 (von Brunn et al. 2007). Nsp9/nsp8 interactions were confirmed by a number of methods, including analytical ultracentrifugation, yeast two-hybrid data, GST pull-down and co-immunoprecipitation experiments, suggesting quite stable interactions between the two proteins. Moreover, the structural disorder of the nsp8 N-terminal region in solution has been reported to decrease when nsp9 was added to a solution containing nsp8 (Sutton et al. 2004). On the basis of the nsp7–nsp8 hexadecameric structure (see Sect. 7.2.2), it was suggested that the most probable nsp9 binding site is formed by the N-terminal 50 residues of nsp8. This part of the structure is close to the entrance of the central pore and appears to be quite flexible, as indicated by the lack of electron density for these residues. Both the nsp9 structure and tryptophan fluorescence quenching data suggest that ssRNA is wrapped around the nsp9 dimer (Egloff et al. 2004). It has been speculated that nsp9 dimers bind to single-stranded nascent and template strands as they emerge from the channel of the nsp7–nsp8 complex at a time when stable secondary structures have not yet formed, thereby protecting ssRNAs from ribonucleolytic cleavage.
7.2.4 The nsp10 Protein
It is currently unclear whether or not the nsp10 dodecameric structure seen in one of the structural studies is of biological relevance. The relevance has been questioned for several reasons. First, site-directed mutagenesis of the nsp10–nsp11 cleavage site in the MHV genome generated nonviable viruses, indicating that 3CLpro-mediated cleavage at this site is essential for viral replication (Deming et al. 2007). Second, the monomer structure has an intact second zinc finger which appears to stabilize the structure of the C-terminal tail of nsp10. By contrast, in the dodecamer structure, the second zinc finger lacks the C-proximal cysteine residue, resulting in local disorder at the nsp10 carboxyl terminus. Finally, substitutions of residues predicted to be crucial for the dodecamer formation did not cause a lethal phenotype in MHV (Donaldson et al. 2007).
Gel shift assays indicate that nsp10 binds single- and double-stranded RNA and DNA with low affinity and without obvious sequence specificity (Joseph et al. 2006). SARS-CoV nsp10 was shown to interact with nsp9 (Su et al. 2006). It also interacts strongly with nsp14 and nsp16 and, to a lesser extent, with nsp8 (Imbert et al. 2008). The precise role of nsp10 within the coronavirus replication/transcription complex remains to be identified.
7.3 The Endoribonuclease, nsp15
The uridylate-specific endoribonuclease (nsp15 or NendoU) is conserved in all members of the Nidovirales but no other virus, which makes the protein a major genetic marker of this group of viruses (Gorbalenya et al. 2006; Ivanov et al. 2004a). Distantly-related homologs of NendoU were also identified in some prokaryotes and eukaryotes, where they form a small protein family prototyped by XendoU, a Xenopus laevis endoribonuclease involved in the nucleolytic processing of intron-encoded box C/D U16 small nucleolar RNAs (Laneve et al. 2003; Snijder et al. 2003). Mainly on the basis of this sequence relationship, it has been speculated that NendoU may (also) have cellular substrates and it should be interesting to investigate whether NendoU is involved in producing small regulatory RNAs (similar to the small nucleolar RNAs produced by XendoU). Nsp15 activity is significantly stimulated by manganese ions and the enzyme generates 2′–3′ cyclic phosphate ends (Ivanov et al. 2004a). It is generally accepted that nsp15 functions as a homohexamer, even though the enzyme has some activity as a monomer (Guarino et al. 2005; Ivanov et al. 2004a; Joseph et al. 2007; Ricagno et al. 2006). NendoU cleaves downstream of uridylates, both in single and double-stranded RNA. The sequence context of the uridylate has been shown to affect cleavage efficiency and differential cleavage efficiencies have been reported for base-paired and nonbase-paired uridylates, respectively (Bhardwaj et al. 2006; Ivanov et al. 2004a).
The overall architecture of coronavirus NendoUs suggests that the protein might be tethered to other partners connecting this hexameric assembly to the viral replication complex and, potentially, cellular structures. Consistent with this idea, NendoU has been implicated in coronavirus and arterivirus RNA synthesis and/or the production of virus progeny (Ivanov et al. 2004a; Kang et al. 2007; Posthuma et al. 2006) and interactions between SARS-CoV nsp15 and nsp3, nsp8, nsp9, and nsp12 have been reported (Imbert et al. 2008). Although endonucleases are ubiquitous enzymes that are involved in many aspects of RNA metabolism, they are extremely rare in the RNA virus world, with only very few exceptions (e.g., in orthomyxo-, pesti-, and retroviruses). Although the precise role of the enzyme in the viral life cycle and its biologically relevant substrates remain to be identified, it seems reasonable to think that NendoU acts as part of a larger protein complex and that nucleolytic activity and substrate specificity are tightly regulated by additional factors to minimize uncontrolled nucleolytic cleavage of viral and cellular RNAs.
The SARS outbreak in 2003 sparked significant new interest in the molecular biology and biochemistry of coronavirus replication. A multitude of structural and functional studies into SARS-CoV replicative enzymes have been published over the past few years, giving a major boost to coronavirus and, more generally, nidovirus research. Interestingly, in several instances, crystal structures of coronavirus proteins have uncovered new biochemical and enzymatic activities, thus opening up new vistas for future studies and stimulating exciting biochemical and genetic studies into the biological functions of specific coronavirus nonstructural proteins. Also, the SARS-CoV structural work has been extremely rewarding for crystallographers interested in novel folds and original enzymes. There are still major challenges ahead, mainly with respect to ORF1b-encoded proteins. For example, there is still no crystal structure available for the special type of primer-dependent RNA polymerases encoded by coronaviruses. Also studies of the zinc-binding domain-containing superfamily 1 helicase (Ivanov et al. 2004b) and 3′–5′ exonuclease (Minskaia et al. 2006) domains residing in nsp13 and nsp14, respectively, and the functionally interesting nsp16 2′-O-methyltransferase (Decroly et al. 2008) promise to reveal exciting new structural and functional insight. Undoubtedly, these upcoming structures will greatly stimulate coronavirus (nidovirus) research and perhaps even reveal novel and truly unique RNA processing pathways involved in the replication of these viruses.
The work of I.I. and B.C. was supported by the Structural Proteomics in Europe (SPINE) project of the European Union 5th Framework Research Program (Grant QLRT-2001-00988) and subsequently by the Euro-Asian SARS-DTV Network (SP22-CT-2004-511064) from the European Commission Specific Research and Technological Development Program “Integrating and Strengthening the European Research Area” and by Interdisciplinary CNRS 2007 Program “Infectious Emerging Diseases.” The work of R.U. and J.Z. has been supported by the Sino-German Centre for Research Promotion, the German Research Council and the Queen’s University of Belfast.
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