Background: Whereas severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus (SARS-CoV) is associated with severe disease, human coronavirus HKU1 (HCoV-HKU1) commonly circulates in the human populations causing generally milder illness. Spike (S) protein of SARS-CoV activates the unfolded protein response (UPR). It is not understood whether HCoV-HKU1 S protein has similar activity. In addition, the UPR-activating domain in SARS-CoV S protein remains to be identified.
Results: In this study we compared S proteins of SARS-CoV and HCoV-HKU1 for their ability to activate the UPR. Both S proteins were found in the endoplasmic reticulum. Transmembrane serine protease TMPRSS2 catalyzed the cleavage of SARS-CoV S protein, but not the counterpart in HCoV-HKU1. Both S proteins showed a similar pattern of UPR-activating activity. Through PERK kinase they activated the transcription of UPR effector genes such as Grp78, Grp94 and CHOP. N-linked glycosylation was not required for the activation of the UPR by S proteins. S1 subunit of SARS-CoV but not its counterpart in HCoV-HKU1 was capable of activating the UPR. A central region (amino acids 201-400) of SARS-CoV S1 was required for this activity.
Conclusions: SARS-CoV and HCoV-HKU1 S proteins use distinct UPR-activating domains to exert the same modulatory effects on UPR signaling.