Role of the spike glycoprotein of human Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in virus entry and syncytia formation

Zhaohui Qian, Samuel R Dominguez, Kathryn V Holmes
PloS One 2013, 8 (10): e76469
Little is known about the biology of the emerging human group c betacoronavirus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV). Because coronavirus spike glycoproteins (S) mediate virus entry, affect viral host range, and elicit neutralizing antibodies, analyzing the functions of MERS-CoV S protein is a high research priority. MERS-CoV S on lentivirus pseudovirions mediated entry into a variety of cell types including embryo cells from New World Eptesicus fuscus bats. Surprisingly, a polyclonal antibody to the S protein of MHV, a group a murine betacoronavirus, cross-reacted in immunoblots with the S2 domain of group c MERS-CoV spike protein. MERS pseudovirions released from 293T cells contained only uncleaved S, and pseudovirus entry was blocked by lysosomotropic reagents NH4Cl and bafilomycin and inhibitors of cathepsin L. However, when MERS pseudovirions with uncleaved S protein were adsorbed at 4°C to Vero E6 cells, brief trypsin treatment at neutral pH triggered virus entry at the plasma membrane and syncytia formation. When 293T cells producing MERS pseudotypes co-expressed serine proteases TMPRSS-2 or -4, large syncytia formed at neutral pH, and the pseudovirions produced were non-infectious and deficient in S protein. These experiments show that if S protein on MERS pseudovirions is uncleaved, then viruses enter by endocytosis in a cathepsin L-dependent manner, but if MERS-CoV S is cleaved, either during virus maturation by serine proteases or on pseudovirions by trypsin in extracellular fluids, then viruses enter at the plasma membrane at neutral pH and cause massive syncytia formation even in cells that express little or no MERS-CoV receptor. Thus, whether MERS-CoV enters cells within endosomes or at the plasma membrane depends upon the host cell type and tissue, and is determined by the location of host proteases that cleave the viral spike glycoprotein and activate membrane fusion.

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