Protein-mediated membrane fusion is an essential step in many fundamental biological events, including enveloped virus infection. The nature of protein and membrane intermediates and the sequence of membrane remodeling during these essential processes remain poorly understood. Here we used cryo-electron tomography (cryo-ET) to image the interplay between influenza virus and vesicles with a range of lipid compositions. By following the population kinetics of membrane fusion intermediates imaged by cryo-ET, we found that membrane remodeling commenced with the hemagglutinin fusion protein spikes grappling onto the target membrane, followed by localized target membrane dimpling as local clusters of hemagglutinin started to undergo conformational refolding. The local dimples then transitioned to extended, tightly apposed contact zones where the two proximal membrane leaflets were in most cases indistinguishable from each other, suggesting significant dehydration and possible intermingling of the lipid head groups. Increasing the content of fusion-enhancing cholesterol or bis-monoacylglycerophosphate in the target membrane led to an increase in extended contact zone formation. Interestingly, hemifused intermediates were found to be extremely rare in the influenza virus fusion system studied here, most likely reflecting the instability of this state and its rapid conversion to postfusion complexes, which increased in population over time. By tracking the populations of fusion complexes over time, the architecture and sequence of membrane reorganization leading to efficient enveloped virus fusion were thus resolved.
Importance: Enveloped viruses employ specialized surface proteins to mediate fusion of cellular and viral membranes that results in the formation of pores through which the viral genetic material is delivered to the cell. For influenza virus, the trimeric hemagglutinin (HA) glycoprotein spike mediates host cell attachment and membrane fusion. While structures of a subset of conformations and parts of the fusion machinery have been characterized, the nature and sequence of membrane deformations during fusion have largely eluded characterization. Building upon studies that focused on early stages of HA-mediated membrane remodeling, here cryo-electron tomography (cryo-ET) was used to image the three-dimensional organization of intact influenza virions at different stages of fusion with liposomes, leading all the way to completion of the fusion reaction. By monitoring the evolution of fusion intermediate populations over the course of acid-induced fusion, we identified the progression of membrane reorganization that leads to efficient fusion by an enveloped virus.
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