|Journal of Virology Structure and Assembly|
The molecular mechanisms that define the specificity of flavivirus RNA encapsulation are poorly understood. Virions composed of the structural proteins of one flavivirus and the genomic RNA of a heterologous strain can be assembled and have been developed as live attenuated vaccine candidates for several flaviviruses. In this study, we discovered that not all combinations of flavivirus components are possible. While a West Nile virus (WNV) subgenomic RNA could readily be packaged by structural proteins of the DENV2 strain 16681, production of infectious virions with DENV2 strain New Guinea C (NGC) structural proteins was not possible, despite the very high amino acid identity between these viruses. Mutagenesis studies identified a single residue (position 101) of the DENV capsid (C) protein as the determinant for heterologous virus production. C101 is located at the P1' position of the NS2B/3 protease cleavage site at the carboxy terminus of the C protein. WNV NS2B/3 cleavage of the DENV structural polyprotein was possible when a threonine (Thr101 in strain 16681) but not a serine (Ser101 in strain NGC) occupied the P1' position, a finding not predicted by in vitro protease specificity studies. Critically, both serine and threonine were tolerated at the P1' position of WNV capsid. More extensive mutagenesis revealed the importance of flanking residues within the polyprotein in defining the cleavage specificity of the WNV protease. A more detailed understanding of the context dependence of viral protease specificity may aid the development of new protease inhibitors and provide insight into associated patterns of drug resistance.
IMPORTANCE West Nile virus (WNV) and dengue virus (DENV) are mosquito-borne flaviviruses that cause considerable morbidity and mortality in humans. No specific antiflavivirus therapeutics are available for treatment of infection. Proteolytic processing of the flavivirus polyprotein is an essential step in the replication cycle and is an attractive target for antiviral development. The design of protease inhibitors has been informed by insights into the molecular details of the interactions of proteases and their substrates. In this article, studies of the processing of WNV and DENV capsid proteins by the WNV protease identified an unexpected contribution of the sequence surrounding critical residues within the cleavage site on protease specificity. This demonstration of context-dependent protease cleavage has implications for the design of chimeric flaviviruses, new therapeutics, and the interpretation of flavivirus protease substrate specificity studies.