Single-stranded, positive-sense RNA viruses encode essential replication polyproteins which are composed of several domains. They are usually subjected to finely regulated proteolytic maturation processes to generate cleavage intermediates and end-products. Both polyproteins and maturation products play multiple key roles that ultimately allow synthesis of viral genome progeny. Despite the importance of these proteins in the course of viral replication, their structural properties, including the conformational changes regulating their numerous functions, are poorly described at the structural level. This lack of information is mainly due to the extreme difficulty to express large, membrane-bound, multi-domain proteins with criteria suitable for structural biology methods. To tackle this challenge, we have used a wheat-germ cell-free expression system. We firstly establish that this approach allows to synthesize viral polyproteins encoded by two unrelated positive-sense RNA viruses, a human norovirus and a plant tymovirus. Then, we demonstrate that these polyproteins are fully functional and are spontaneously auto-cleaved by their active protease domain, giving rise to natural maturation products. Moreover, we show that introduction of point mutations in polyproteins allows to inhibit the proteolytic maturation process of each virus. This allowed us to express and partially purify the uncleaved full-length norovirus polyprotein and the tymoviral RNA-dependent RNA polymerase. Thus, this study provides a powerful tool to obtain soluble viral polyproteins and their maturation products in order to conduct challenging structural biology projects and therefore solve unanswered questions.
Keywords: Maturation process; Polyprotein; Virus; Wheat-germ cell-free expression system.
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