JOURNAL ARTICLE

Human coronavirus 229E encodes a single ORF4 protein between the spike and the envelope genes

Ronald Dijkman, Maarten F Jebbink, Berry Wilbrink, Krzysztof Pyrc, Hans L Zaaijer, Philip D Minor, Sally Franklin, Ben Berkhout, Volker Thiel, Lia van der Hoek
Virology Journal 2006, 3: 106
17194306

BACKGROUND: The genome of coronaviruses contains structural and non-structural genes, including several so-called accessory genes. All group 1b coronaviruses encode a single accessory protein between the spike and envelope genes, except for human coronavirus (HCoV) 229E. The prototype virus has a split gene, encoding the putative ORF4a and ORF4b proteins. To determine whether primary HCoV-229E isolates exhibit this unusual genome organization, we analyzed the ORF4a/b region of five current clinical isolates from The Netherlands and three early isolates collected at the Common Cold Unit (CCU) in Salisbury, UK.

RESULTS: All Dutch isolates were identical in the ORF4a/b region at amino acid level. All CCU isolates are only 98% identical to the Dutch isolates at the nucleotide level, but more closely related to the prototype HCoV-229E (>98%). Remarkably, our analyses revealed that the laboratory adapted, prototype HCoV-229E has a 2-nucleotide deletion in the ORF4a/b region, whereas all clinical isolates carry a single ORF, 660 nt in size, encoding a single protein of 219 amino acids, which is a homologue of the ORF3 proteins encoded by HCoV-NL63 and PEDV.

CONCLUSION: Thus, the genome organization of the group 1b coronaviruses HCoV-NL63, PEDV and HCoV-229E is identical. It is possible that extensive culturing of the HCoV-229E laboratory strain resulted in truncation of ORF4. This may indicate that the protein is not essential in cell culture, but the highly conserved amino acid sequence of the ORF4 protein among clinical isolates suggests that the protein plays an important role in vivo.

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