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J Virol. 2005 Dec;79(24):15054-63.

Luxury at a cost? Recombinant mouse hepatitis viruses expressing the accessory hemagglutinin esterase protein display reduced fitness in vitro.

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  • 1Virology Division, Department of Infectious Diseases and Immunology, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University, Yalelaan 1, 3584 CL Utrecht, The Netherlands.


Group 2 coronaviruses encode an accessory envelope glycoprotein species, the hemagglutinin esterase (HE), which possesses sialate-O-acetylesterase activity and which, presumably, promotes virus spread and entry in vivo by facilitating reversible virion attachment to O-acetylated sialic acids. While HE may provide a strong selective advantage during natural infection, many laboratory strains of mouse hepatitis virus (MHV) fail to produce the protein. Apparently, their HE genes were inactivated during cell culture adaptation. For this report, we have studied the molecular basis of this phenomenon. By using targeted RNA recombination, we generated isogenic recombinant MHVs which differ exclusively in their expression of HE and produce either the wild-type protein (HE+), an enzymatically inactive HE protein (HE0), or no HE at all. HE expression or the lack thereof did not lead to gross differences in in vitro growth properties. Yet the expression of HE was rapidly lost during serial cell culture passaging. Competition experiments with mixed infections revealed that this was not due to the enzymatic activity: MHVs expressing HE+ or HE0 propagated with equal efficiencies. During the propagation of recombinant MHV-HE+, two types of spontaneous mutants accumulated. One produced an anchorless HE, while the other had a Gly-to-Trp substitution at the predicted C-terminal residue of the HE signal peptide. Neither mutant incorporated HE into virion particles, suggesting that wild-type HE reduces the in vitro propagation efficiency, either at the assembly stage or at a postassembly level. Our findings demonstrate that the expression of "luxury" proteins may come at a fitness penalty. Apparently, under natural conditions the costs of maintaining HE are outweighed by the benefits.

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