Proteolytic Processing of the Coronavirus Replicase Nonstructural Protein 14 Exonuclease Is Not Required for Virus Replication but Alters RNA Synthesis and Viral Fitness

J Virol. 2022 Aug 4;e0084122. doi: 10.1128/jvi.00841-22. Online ahead of print.


Coronaviruses (CoVs) initiate replication by translation of the positive-sense RNA genome into the replicase polyproteins connecting 16 nonstructural protein domains (nsp1-16), which are subsequently processed by viral proteases to yield mature nsp. For the betacoronavirus murine hepatitis virus (MHV), total inhibition of translation or proteolytic processing of replicase polyproteins results in rapid cessation of RNA synthesis. The nsp5-3CLpro (Mpro) processes nsps7-16, which assemble into functional replication-transcription complexes (RTCs), including the enzymatic nsp12-RdRp and nsp14-exoribonuclease (ExoN)/N7-methyltransferase. The nsp14-ExoN activity mediates RNA-dependent RNA proofreading, high-fidelity RNA synthesis, and replication. To date, the solved partial RTC structures, biochemistry, and models use or assume completely processed, mature nsp. Here, we demonstrate that in MHV, engineered deletion of the cleavage sites between nsp13-14 and nsp14-15 allowed recovery of replication-competent virus. Compared to wild-type (WT) MHV, the nsp13-14 and nsp14-15 cleavage deletion mutants demonstrated delayed replication kinetics, impaired genome production, altered abundance and patterns of recombination, and impaired competitive fitness. Further, the nsp13-14 and nsp14-15 mutant viruses demonstrated mutation frequencies that were significantly higher than with the WT. The results demonstrate that cleavage of nsp13-14 or nsp14-15 is not required for MHV viability and that functions of the RTC/nsp14-ExoN are impaired when assembled with noncleaved intermediates. These data will inform future genetic, structural, biochemical, and modeling studies of coronavirus RTCs and nsp 13, 14, and 15 and may reveal new approaches for inhibition or attenuation of CoV infection. IMPORTANCE Coronavirus replication requires proteolytic maturation of the nonstructural replicase proteins to form the replication-transcription complex. Coronavirus replication-transcription complex models assume mature subunits; however, mechanisms of coronavirus maturation and replicase complex formation have yet to be defined. Here, we show that for the coronavirus murine hepatitis virus, cleavage between the nonstructural replicase proteins nsp13-14 and nsp14-15 is not required for replication but does alter RNA synthesis and recombination. These results shed new light on the requirements for coronavirus maturation and replication-transcription complex assembly, and they may reveal novel therapeutic targets and strategies for attenuation.

Keywords: coronavirus; exonuclease; maturation; protease cleavage; replication-transcription complex.