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Virology. 2004 Jul 1;324(2):373-86.

Conformational changes in Sindbis virions resulting from exposure to low pH and interactions with cells suggest that cell penetration may occur at the cell surface in the absence of membrane fusion.

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National Center for Macromolecular Imaging, Verna and Marrs McLean Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX 77030, USA.


Alphaviruses have the ability to induce cell-cell fusion after exposure to acid pH. This observation has served as an article of proof that these membrane-containing viruses infect cells by fusion of the virus membrane with a host cell membrane upon exposure to acid pH after incorporation into a cell endosome. We have investigated the requirements for the induction of virus-mediated, low pH-induced cell-cell fusion and cell-virus fusion. We have correlated the pH requirements for this process to structural changes they produce in the virus by electron cryo-microscopy. We found that exposure to acid pH was required to establish conditions for membrane fusion but that membrane fusion did not occur until return to neutral pH. Electron cryo-microscopy revealed dramatic changes in the structure of the virion as it was moved to acid pH and then returned to neutral pH. None of these treatments resulted in the disassembly of the virus protein icosahedral shell that is a requisite for the process of virus membrane-cell membrane fusion. The appearance of a prominent protruding structure upon exposure to acid pH and its disappearance upon return to neutral pH suggested that the production of a "pore"-like structure at the fivefold axis may facilitate cell penetration as has been proposed for polio (J. Virol. 74 (2000) 1342) and human rhino virus (Mol. Cell 10 (2002) 317). This transient structural change also provided an explanation for how membrane fusion occurs after return to neutral pH. Examination of virus-cell complexes at neutral pH supported the contention that infection occurs at the cell surface at neutral pH by the production of a virus structure that breaches the plasma membrane bilayer. These data suggest an alternative route of infection for Sindbis virus that occurs by a process that does not involve membrane fusion and does not require disassembly of the virus protein shell.

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