The E4 protein; structure, function and patterns of expression

Virology. 2013 Oct;445(1-2):80-98. doi: 10.1016/j.virol.2013.07.008. Epub 2013 Sep 7.


The papillomavirus E4 open reading frame (ORF) is contained within the E2 ORF, with the primary E4 gene-product (E1^E4) being translated from a spliced mRNA that includes the E1 initiation codon and adjacent sequences. E4 is located centrally within the E2 gene, in a region that encodes the E2 protein's flexible hinge domain. Although a number of minor E4 transcripts have been reported, it is the product of the abundant E1^E4 mRNA that has been most extensively analysed. During the papillomavirus life cycle, the E1^E4 gene products generally become detectable at the onset of vegetative viral genome amplification as the late stages of infection begin. E4 contributes to genome amplification success and virus synthesis, with its high level of expression suggesting additional roles in virus release and/or transmission. In general, E4 is easily visualised in biopsy material by immunostaining, and can be detected in lesions caused by diverse papillomavirus types, including those of dogs, rabbits and cattle as well as humans. The E4 protein can serve as a biomarker of active virus infection, and in the case of high-risk human types also disease severity. In some cutaneous lesions, E4 can be expressed at higher levels than the virion coat proteins, and can account for as much as 30% of total lesional protein content. The E4 proteins of the Beta, Gamma and Mu HPV types assemble into distinctive cytoplasmic, and sometimes nuclear, inclusion granules. In general, the E4 proteins are expressed before L2 and L1, with their structure and function being modified, first by kinases as the infected cell progresses through the S and G2 cell cycle phases, but also by proteases as the cell exits the cell cycle and undergoes true terminal differentiation. The kinases that regulate E4 also affect other viral proteins simultaneously, and include protein kinase A, Cyclin-dependent kinase, members of the MAP Kinase family and protein kinase C. For HPV16 E1^E4, these kinases regulate one of the E1^E4 proteins main functions, the association with the cellular keratin network, and eventually also its cleavage by the protease calpain which allows assembly into amyloid-like fibres and reorganisation of the keratin network. Although the E4 proteins of different HPV types appear divergent at the level of their primary amino acid sequence, they share a recognisable modular organisation and pattern of expression, which may underlie conserved functions and regulation. Assembly into higher-order multimers and suppression of cell proliferation are common to all E4 proteins examined. Although not yet formally demonstrated, a role in virus release and transmission remains a likely function for E4.

Keywords: Biomarkers; Cervix; E4; HPV; Keratin; Life-cycle; Papillomaviruses.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Conserved Sequence
  • Epithelium / virology
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Viral*
  • Humans
  • Keratins / metabolism
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Mucous Membrane / virology
  • Oncogene Proteins, Viral / genetics
  • Oncogene Proteins, Viral / metabolism*
  • Open Reading Frames
  • Papillomaviridae / genetics
  • Papillomaviridae / metabolism*
  • Papillomaviridae / physiology
  • RNA Splicing
  • Structure-Activity Relationship
  • Virus Assembly
  • Virus Release


  • Oncogene Proteins, Viral
  • oncogene protein E4, Human papillomavirus type 16
  • Keratins