Link to Pubmed [PMID] – 29415072
PLoS Pathog. 2018 02;14(2):e1006863
Over the recent years, several homologues with varying degrees of genetic relatedness to hepatitis C virus (HCV) have been identified in a wide range of mammalian species. HCV infectious life cycle relies on a first critical proteolytic event of its single polyprotein, which is carried out by nonstructural protein 2 (NS2) and allows replicase assembly and genome replication. In this study, we characterized and evaluated the conservation of the proteolytic mode of action and regulatory mechanisms of NS2 across HCV and animal hepaciviruses. We first demonstrated that NS2 from equine, bat, rodent, New and Old World primate hepaciviruses also are cysteine proteases. Using tagged viral protein precursors and catalytic triad mutants, NS2 of equine NPHV and simian GBV-B, which are the most closely and distantly related viruses to HCV, respectively, were shown to function, like HCV NS2 as dimeric proteases with two composite active sites. Consistent with the reported essential role for NS3 N-terminal domain (NS3N) as HCV NS2 protease cofactor via NS3N key hydrophobic surface patch, we showed by gain/loss of function mutagenesis studies that some heterologous hepacivirus NS3N may act as cofactors for HCV NS2 provided that HCV-like hydrophobic residues are conserved. Unprecedently, however, we also observed efficient intrinsic proteolytic activity of NS2 protease in the absence of NS3 moiety in the context of C-terminal tag fusions via flexible linkers both in transiently transfected cells for all hepaciviruses studied and in the context of HCV dicistronic full-length genomes. These findings suggest that NS3N acts as a regulatory rather than essential cofactor for hepacivirus NS2 protease. Overall, unique features of NS2 including enzymatic function as dimers with two composite active sites and additional NS3-independent proteolytic activity are conserved across hepaciviruses regardless of their genetic distances, highlighting their functional significance in hepacivirus life cycle.