Conserved Characteristics of NMPylation Activities of Alpha- and Betacoronavirus NiRAN Domains

J Virol. 2023 Jun 29;97(6):e0046523. doi: 10.1128/jvi.00465-23. Epub 2023 May 18.


Coronavirus genome replication and expression are mediated by the viral replication-transcription complex (RTC) which is assembled from multiple nonstructural proteins (nsp). Among these, nsp12 represents the central functional subunit. It harbors the RNA-directed RNA polymerase (RdRp) domain and contains, at its N terminus, an additional domain called NiRAN which is widely conserved in coronaviruses and other nidoviruses. In this study, we produced bacterially expressed coronavirus nsp12s to investigate and compare NiRAN-mediated NMPylation activities from representative alpha- and betacoronaviruses. We found that the four coronavirus NiRAN domains characterized to date have a number of conserved properties, including (i) robust nsp9-specific NMPylation activities that appear to operate largely independently of the C-terminal RdRp domain, (ii) nucleotide substrate preference for UTP followed by ATP and other nucleotides, (iii) dependence on divalent metal ions, with Mn2+ being preferred over Mg2+, and (iv) a key role of N-terminal residues (particularly Asn2) of nsp9 for efficient formation of a covalent phosphoramidate bond between NMP and the N-terminal amino group of nsp9. In this context, a mutational analysis confirmed the conservation and critical role of Asn2 across different subfamilies of the family Coronaviridae, as shown by studies using chimeric coronavirus nsp9 variants in which six N-terminal residues were replaced with those from other corona-, pito- and letovirus nsp9 homologs. The combined data of this and previous studies reveal a remarkable degree of conservation among coronavirus NiRAN-mediated NMPylation activities, supporting a key role of this enzymatic activity in viral RNA synthesis and processing. IMPORTANCE There is strong evidence that coronaviruses and other large nidoviruses evolved a number of unique enzymatic activities, including an additional RdRp-associated NiRAN domain, that are conserved in nidoviruses but not in most other RNA viruses. Previous studies of the NiRAN domain mainly focused on severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and suggested different functions for this domain, such as NMPylation/RNAylation of nsp9, RNA guanylyltransferase activities involved in canonical and/or unconventional RNA capping pathways, and other functions. To help resolve partly conflicting information on substrate specificities and metal ion requirements reported previously for the SARS-CoV-2 NiRAN NMPylation activity, we extended these earlier studies by characterizing representative alpha- and betacoronavirus NiRAN domains. The study revealed that key features of NiRAN-mediated NMPylation activities, such as protein and nucleotide specificity and metal ion requirements, are very well conserved among genetically divergent coronaviruses, suggesting potential avenues for future antiviral drug development targeting this essential viral enzyme.

Keywords: NMPylation; coronavirus; replication.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Conserved Sequence
  • Coronaviridae* / enzymology
  • Coronaviridae* / genetics
  • Humans
  • Nucleotides / metabolism
  • Protein Domains* / physiology
  • Protein Structure, Secondary / genetics
  • RNA, Viral / metabolism
  • RNA-Dependent RNA Polymerase* / genetics
  • RNA-Dependent RNA Polymerase* / metabolism
  • SARS-CoV-2 / enzymology
  • Vero Cells
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins / metabolism
  • Viral Proteins / metabolism


  • Nucleotides
  • RNA, Viral
  • RNA-Dependent RNA Polymerase
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins
  • Viral Proteins