RNA-activated protein kinase (PKR) is a major innate immune factor that senses viral double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) and phosphorylates eukaryotic initiation factor (eIF) 2α. Phosphorylation of the α subunit converts the eIF2αβγ complex into a stoichiometric inhibitor of eukaryotic initiation factor eIF2B, thus halting mRNA translation. To escape this protein synthesis shutoff, viruses have evolved countermechanisms such as dsRNA sequestration, eIF-independent translation by an internal ribosome binding site, degradation of PKR, or dephosphorylation of PKR or of phospho-eIF2α. Here, we report that sandfly fever Sicilian phlebovirus (SFSV) confers such a resistance without interfering with PKR activation or eIF2α phosphorylation. Rather, SFSV expresses a nonstructural protein termed NSs that strongly binds to eIF2B. Although NSs still allows phospho-eIF2α binding to eIF2B, protein synthesis and virus replication are unhindered. Hence, SFSV encodes a unique PKR antagonist that acts by rendering eIF2B resistant to the inhibitory action of bound phospho-eIF2α.IMPORTANCE RNA-activated protein kinase (PKR) is one of the most powerful antiviral defense factors of the mammalian host. PKR acts by phosphorylating mRNA translation initiation factor eIF2α, thereby converting it from a cofactor to an inhibitor of mRNA translation that strongly binds to initiation factor eIF2B. To sustain synthesis of their proteins, viruses are known to counteract this on the level of PKR or eIF2α or by circumventing initiation factor-dependent translation altogether. Here, we report a different PKR escape strategy executed by sandfly fever Sicilian virus (SFSV), a member of the increasingly important group of phleboviruses. We found that the nonstructural protein NSs of SFSV binds to eIF2B and protects it from inactivation by PKR-generated phospho-eIF2α. Protein synthesis is hence maintained and the virus can replicate despite ongoing full-fledged PKR signaling in the infected cells. Thus, SFSV has evolved a unique strategy to escape the powerful antiviral PKR.
Keywords: NSs protein; PKR; eIF2B; integrated stress response; phospho-eIF2α; sandfly fever Sicilian phlebovirus; translation inhibition; viral PKR antagonist.
Copyright © 2020 Wuerth et al.