Infectious Entry of Merkel Cell Polyomavirus

J Virol. 2019 Mar 5;93(6):e02004-18. doi: 10.1128/JVI.02004-18. Print 2019 Mar 15.


Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV) is a small, nonenveloped tumor virus associated with an aggressive form of skin cancer, Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC). MCPyV infections are highly prevalent in the human population, with MCPyV virions being continuously shed from human skin. However, the precise host cell tropism(s) of MCPyV remains unclear: MCPyV is able to replicate within a subset of dermal fibroblasts, but MCPyV DNA has also been detected in a variety of other tissues. However, MCPyV appears different from other polyomaviruses, as it requires sulfated polysaccharides, such as heparan sulfates and/or chondroitin sulfates, for initial attachment. Like other polyomaviruses, MCPyV engages sialic acid as a (co)receptor. To explore the infectious entry process of MCPyV, we analyzed the cell biological determinants of MCPyV entry into A549 cells, a highly transducible lung carcinoma cell line, in comparison to well-studied simian virus 40 and a number of other viruses. Our results indicate that MCPyV enters cells via caveolar/lipid raft-mediated endocytosis but not macropinocytosis, clathrin-mediated endocytosis, or glycosphingolipid-enriched carriers. The viruses were internalized in small endocytic pits that led the virus to endosomes and from there to the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). Similar to other polyomaviruses, trafficking required microtubular transport, acidification of endosomes, and a functional redox environment. To our surprise, the virus was found to acquire a membrane envelope within endosomes, a phenomenon not reported for other viruses. Only minor amounts of viruses reached the ER, while the majority was retained in endosomal compartments, suggesting that endosome-to-ER trafficking is a bottleneck during infectious entry.IMPORTANCE MCPyV is the first polyomavirus directly implicated in the development of an aggressive human cancer, Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC). Although MCPyV is constantly shed from healthy skin, the MCC incidence increases among aging and immunocompromised individuals. To date, the events connecting initial MCPyV infection and subsequent transformation still remain elusive. MCPyV differs from other known polyomaviruses concerning its cell tropism, entry receptor requirements, and infection kinetics. In this study, we examined the cellular requirements for endocytic entry as well as the subcellular localization of incoming virus particles. A thorough understanding of the determinants of the infectious entry pathway and the specific biological niche will benefit prevention of virus-derived cancers such as MCC.

Keywords: MCPyV; endocytosis; polyomavirus; virus entry; virus-host interaction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • A549 Cells
  • Antigens, Viral, Tumor / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Merkel Cell / virology
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Movement / physiology
  • Fibroblasts / virology
  • HEK293 Cells
  • HeLa Cells
  • Heparitin Sulfate / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Merkel cell polyomavirus / metabolism
  • Merkel cell polyomavirus / pathogenicity*
  • N-Acetylneuraminic Acid / metabolism
  • Polyomavirus Infections / virology*
  • Skin / virology
  • Skin Neoplasms / virology
  • Tumor Virus Infections / virology
  • Viral Tropism / physiology


  • Antigens, Viral, Tumor
  • Heparitin Sulfate
  • N-Acetylneuraminic Acid