COVID-19 which is caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has posed a worldwide pandemic and a major global public health threat. SARS-CoV-2 Nucleocapsid (N) protein plays a critical role in multiple steps of the viral life cycle and participates in viral replication, transcription, and assembly. The primary roles of N protein are to assemble with genomic RNA into the viral RNA-protein (vRNP) complex and to localize to the replication transcription complexes (RTCs) to enhance viral replication and transcription. N protein can also undergo liquid-liquid phase separation (LLPS) with viral genome RNA and inhibit stress granules to facilitate viral replication and assembly. Besides the function in viral life cycle, N protein can bind GSDMD to antagonize pyroptosis but promotes cell death via the Smad3-dependent G1 cell cycle arrest mechanism. In innate immune system, N protein inhibits IFN-β production and RNAi pathway for virus survival. However, it can induce expression of proinflammatory cytokines by activating NF-κB signaling and NLRP3 inflammasome, resulting in cytokine storms. In this review article, we are focusing on the signaling mechanisms of SARS-CoV-2 N protein in viral replication, cell death and inflammation.
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