Glycosaminoglycans and sialylated glycans sequentially facilitate Merkel cell polyomavirus infectious entry

PLoS Pathog. 2011 Jul;7(7):e1002161. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1002161. Epub 2011 Jul 28.


Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV or MCPyV) appears to be a causal factor in the development of Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare but highly lethal form of skin cancer. Although recent reports indicate that MCV virions are commonly shed from apparently healthy human skin, the precise cellular tropism of the virus in healthy subjects remains unclear. To begin to explore this question, we set out to identify the cellular receptors or co-receptors required for the infectious entry of MCV. Although several previously studied polyomavirus species have been shown to bind to cell surface sialic acid residues associated with glycolipids or glycoproteins, we found that sialylated glycans are not required for initial attachment of MCV virions to cultured human cell lines. Instead, glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), such as heparan sulfate (HS) and chondroitin sulfate (CS), serve as initial attachment receptors during the MCV infectious entry process. Using cell lines deficient in GAG biosynthesis, we found that N-sulfated and/or 6-O-sulfated forms of HS mediate infectious entry of MCV reporter vectors, while CS appears to be dispensable. Intriguingly, although cell lines deficient in sialylated glycans readily bind MCV capsids, the cells are highly resistant to MCV reporter vector-mediated gene transduction. This suggests that sialylated glycans play a post-attachment role in the infectious entry process. Results observed using MCV reporter vectors were confirmed using a novel system for infectious propagation of native MCV virions. Taken together, the findings suggest a model in which MCV infectious entry occurs via initial cell binding mediated primarily by HS, followed by secondary interactions with a sialylated entry co-factor. The study should facilitate the development of inhibitors of MCV infection and help shed light on the infectious entry pathways and cellular tropism of the virus.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • CHO Cells
  • Capsid / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Merkel Cell / genetics
  • Carcinoma, Merkel Cell / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Merkel Cell / pathology
  • Carcinoma, Merkel Cell / virology
  • Chondroitin Sulfates / genetics
  • Chondroitin Sulfates / metabolism*
  • Cricetinae
  • Cricetulus
  • Heparitin Sulfate / genetics
  • Heparitin Sulfate / metabolism*
  • Merkel cell polyomavirus / physiology*
  • Models, Biological*
  • N-Acetylneuraminic Acid / metabolism*
  • Skin / metabolism
  • Skin / pathology
  • Skin / virology
  • Viral Tropism / physiology*
  • Virus Internalization*


  • Chondroitin Sulfates
  • Heparitin Sulfate
  • N-Acetylneuraminic Acid