Identification of NS2 determinants stimulating intrinsic HCV NS2 protease activity

PLoS Pathog. 2022 Jun 21;18(6):e1010644. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1010644. eCollection 2022 Jun.


Hepatitis C Virus NS2-NS3 cleavage is mediated by NS2 autoprotease (NS2pro) and this cleavage is important for genome replication and virus assembly. Efficient NS2-NS3 cleavage relies on the stimulation of an intrinsic NS2pro activity by the NS3 protease domain. NS2pro activation depends on conserved hydrophobic NS3 surface residues and yet unknown NS2-NS3 surface interactions. Guided by an in silico NS2-NS3 precursor model, we experimentally identified two NS2 surface residues, F103 and L144, that are important for NS2pro activation by NS3. When analyzed in the absence of NS3, a combination of defined amino acid exchanges, namely F103A and L144I, acts together to increase intrinsic NS2pro activity. This effect is conserved between different HCV genotypes. For mutation L144I its stimulatory effect on NS2pro could be also demonstrated for two other mammalian hepaciviruses, highlighting the functional significance of this finding. We hypothesize that the two exchanges stimulating the intrinsic NS2pro activity mimic structural changes occurring during NS3-mediated NS2pro activation. Introducing these activating NS2pro mutations into a NS2-NS5B replicon reduced NS2-NS3 cleavage and RNA replication, indicating their interference with NS2-NS3 surface interactions pivotal for NS2pro activation by NS3. Data from chimeric hepaciviral NS2-NS3 precursor constructs, suggest that NS2 F103 is involved in the reception or transfer of the NS3 stimulus by NS3 P115. Accordingly, fine-tuned NS2-NS3 surface interactions are a salient feature of HCV NS2-NS3 cleavage. Together, these novel insights provide an exciting basis to dissect molecular mechanisms of NS2pro activation by NS3.

MeSH terms

  • Hepacivirus* / enzymology
  • Hepacivirus* / metabolism
  • Hepatitis C / virology
  • Humans
  • Peptide Hydrolases / metabolism
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins* / metabolism
  • Virus Replication


  • NS2 protein, Hepatitis C virus
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins
  • Peptide Hydrolases

Grants and funding

TW and NT were funded by German Research Foundation grant TA 218/3-1. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.