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Genes Dev. 2006 Jan 1;20(1):87-100.

Translational resistance of late alphavirus mRNA to eIF2alpha phosphorylation: a strategy to overcome the antiviral effect of protein kinase PKR.

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Departamento de Biología Molecular y Celular, Centro Nacional de Biotecnología/CSIC, Cantoblanco, E-28049 Madrid, Spain.


The double-stranded RNA-dependent protein kinase (PKR) is one of the four mammalian kinases that phosphorylates the translation initiation factor 2alpha in response to virus infection. This kinase is induced by interferon and activated by double-stranded RNA (dsRNA). Phosphorylation of eukaryotic initiation factor 2alpha (eIF2alpha) blocks translation initiation of both cellular and viral mRNA, inhibiting virus replication. To counteract this effect, most viruses express inhibitors that prevent PKR activation in infected cells. Here we report that PKR is highly activated following infection with alphaviruses Sindbis (SV) and Semliki Forest virus (SFV), leading to the almost complete phosphorylation of eIF2alpha. Notably, subgenomic SV 26S mRNA is translated efficiently in the presence of phosphorylated eIF2alpha. This modification of eIF2 does not restrict viral replication; SV 26S mRNA initiates translation with canonical methionine in the presence of high levels of phosphorylated eIF2alpha. Genetic and biochemical data showed a highly stable RNA hairpin loop located downstream of the AUG initiator codon that is necessary to provide translational resistance to eIF2alpha phosphorylation. This structure can stall the ribosomes on the correct site to initiate translation of SV 26S mRNA, thus bypassing the requirement for a functional eIF2. Our findings show the existence of an alternative way to locate the ribosomes on the initiation codon of mRNA that is exploited by a family of viruses to counteract the antiviral effect of PKR.

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