The hepatitis C virus (HCV) genome encodes a 63 amino acid (aa) protein, p7, which is located between the structural and non-structural proteins. p7 localizes to endoplasmic reticulum membranes and is composed of two transmembrane domains (TM1 and TM2) and a cytoplasmic loop. While its exact role is unknown, p7 is crucial for assembly and/or release of infectious virus production in cell culture, as well as infectivity in chimpanzees. The contribution of p7 to the HCV life cycle may result from at least two distinct roles. Firstly, several studies have shown that p7 acts as an ion channel, the functionality of which is critical for infection. Secondly, p7 interacts with NS2 in a manner that may regulate the targeting of other structural proteins during the assembly process. In this study, we observed that mutations in TM1 and the cytoplasmic loop of p7 decreased infectious virus production in a single-cycle virus production assay. Analysis of intra- and extracellular virus titers indicated that p7 functions at a stage prior to generation of infectious particles. These effects were not due to altered RNA replication since no effects on levels of NS3 or NS5A protein were observed, and were not a consequence of altered recruitment of core protein to lipid droplets. Similarly, these mutations seemingly did not prevent nucleocapsid oligomerization. Importantly, we found that an alanine triplet substitution including the two basic residues of the cytoplasmic loop, which is integral to p7 ion channel function, significantly reduced E2 glycoprotein levels. A time course experiment tracking E2 levels indicated that E2 was degraded over time, as opposed to being synthesized in reduced quantities. The results of this study provide strong evidence that one of the functions of p7 is to protect HCV glycoproteins from premature degradation during virion morphogenesis.
Keywords: Flaviviruses; Hepatitis C virus; RNA viruses; Virus assembly; Virus production.
Copyright © 2013 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.