Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) infection is associated with a high case-fatality rate, and the potential pandemic spread of the virus is a public health concern. The spike protein of MERS-CoV (MERS-S) facilitates viral entry into host cells, which depends on activation of MERS-S by cellular proteases. Proteolytic activation of MERS-S during viral uptake into target cells has been demonstrated. However, it is unclear whether MERS-S is also cleaved during S protein synthesis in infected cells and whether cleavage is required for MERS-CoV infectivity. Here, we show that MERS-S is processed by proprotein convertases in MERS-S-transfected and MERS-CoV-infected cells and that several RXXR motifs located at the border between the surface and transmembrane subunit of MERS-S are required for efficient proteolysis. However, blockade of proprotein convertases did not impact MERS-S-dependent transduction of target cells expressing high amounts of the viral receptor, DPP4, and did not modulate MERS-CoV infectivity. These results show that MERS-S is a substrate for proprotein convertases and demonstrate that processing by these enzymes is dispensable for S protein activation. Efforts to inhibit MERS-CoV infection by targeting host cell proteases should therefore focus on enzymes that process MERS-S during viral uptake into target cells.
Keywords: MERS-coronavirus; TMPRSS2; activation; proprotein convertase; protease; spike; trypsin.
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