Proofreading-Deficient Coronaviruses Adapt for Increased Fitness over Long-Term Passage without Reversion of Exoribonuclease-Inactivating Mutations

Kevin W Graepel, Xiaotao Lu, James Brett Case, Nicole R Sexton, Everett Clinton Smith, Mark R Denison
MBio 2017 November 7, 8 (6)
The coronavirus (CoV) RNA genome is the largest among the single-stranded positive-sense RNA viruses. CoVs encode a proofreading 3'-to-5' exoribonuclease within nonstructural protein 14 (nsp14-ExoN) that is responsible for CoV high-fidelity replication. Alanine substitution of ExoN catalytic residues [ExoN(-)] in severe acute respiratory syndrome-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and murine hepatitis virus (MHV) disrupts ExoN activity, yielding viable mutant viruses with defective replication, up to 20-fold-decreased fidelity, and increased susceptibility to nucleoside analogues. To test the stability of the ExoN(-) genotype and phenotype, we passaged MHV-ExoN(-) 250 times in cultured cells (P250), in parallel with wild-type MHV (WT-MHV). Compared to MHV-ExoN(-) P3, MHV-ExoN(-) P250 demonstrated enhanced replication and increased competitive fitness without reversion at the ExoN(-) active site. Furthermore, MHV-ExoN(-) P250 was less susceptible than MHV-ExoN(-) P3 to multiple nucleoside analogues, suggesting that MHV-ExoN(-) was under selection for increased replication fidelity. We subsequently identified novel amino acid changes within the RNA-dependent RNA polymerase and nsp14 of MHV-ExoN(-) P250 that partially accounted for the reduced susceptibility to nucleoside analogues. Our results suggest that increased replication fidelity is selected in ExoN(-) CoVs and that there may be a significant barrier to ExoN(-) reversion. These results also support the hypothesis that high-fidelity replication is linked to CoV fitness and indicate that multiple replicase proteins could compensate for ExoN functions during replication. IMPORTANCE Uniquely among RNA viruses, CoVs encode a proofreading exoribonuclease (ExoN) in nsp14 that mediates high-fidelity RNA genome replication. Proofreading-deficient CoVs with disrupted ExoN activity [ExoN(-)] either are nonviable or have significant defects in replication, RNA synthesis, fidelity, fitness, and virulence. In this study, we showed that ExoN(-) murine hepatitis virus can adapt during long-term passage for increased replication and fitness without reverting the ExoN-inactivating mutations. Passage-adapted ExoN(-) mutants also demonstrate increasing resistance to nucleoside analogues that is explained only partially by secondary mutations in nsp12 and nsp14. These data suggest that enhanced resistance to nucleoside analogues is mediated by the interplay of multiple replicase proteins and support the proposed link between CoV fidelity and fitness.

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