Many viruses destabilize cellular membranous compartments to form their replication complexes, but the mechanism(s) underlying membrane perturbation remains unknown. Expression in eukaryotic cells of NS4B, a protein of the hepatitis C virus (HCV), alters membranous complexes and induces structures similar to the so-called membranous web that appears crucial to the formation of the HCV replication complex. As over-expression of the protein is lethal to both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, NS4B was produced in large quantities in a "cell-free" system in the presence of detergent, after which it was inserted into lipid membranes. X-ray diffraction revealed that NS4B modifies the phase diagram of synthetic lipid aqueous phases considerably, perturbing the transition temperature and cooperativity. Cryo-electron microscopy demonstrated that NS4B introduces significant disorder in the synthetic membrane as well as discontinuities that could be interpreted as due to the formation of pores and membrane merging events. C- and N-terminal fragments of NS4B are both able to destabilize liposomes. While most NS4B amphipathic peptides perforate membranes, one NS4B peptide induces membrane fusion. Cryo-electron microscopy reveals a particular structure that can be interpreted as arising from hemi-fusion-like events. Amphipathic domains are present in many proteins, and if exposed to the aqueous cytoplasmic medium are sufficient to destabilize membranes in order to form viral replication complexes. These domains have important functions in the viral replication cycle, and thus represent potential targets for the development of anti-viral molecules.
Keywords: Cryo-EM of membranes disordered by NS4B; CryoEM of membranes fused by NS4B peptide; HCV-NS4B induced membrane disorder; NS4B peptides induced membrane perforation; One NS4B peptide induced membrane fusion.
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