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J Virol. 2014 Apr;88(8):4251-64. doi: 10.1128/JVI.03571-13. Epub 2014 Jan 29.

Attenuation and restoration of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus mutant lacking 2'-o-methyltransferase activity.

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Department of Epidemiology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA.


The sudden emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) in 2002 and, more recently, Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome CoV (MERS-CoV) underscores the importance of understanding critical aspects of CoV infection and pathogenesis. Despite significant insights into CoV cross-species transmission, replication, and virus-host interactions, successful therapeutic options for CoVs do not yet exist. Recent identification of SARS-CoV NSP16 as a viral 2'-O-methyltransferase (2'-O-MTase) led to the possibility of utilizing this pathway to both attenuate SARS-CoV infection and develop novel therapeutic treatment options. Mutations were introduced into SARS-CoV NSP16 within the conserved KDKE motif and effectively attenuated the resulting SARS-CoV mutant viruses both in vitro and in vivo. While viruses lacking 2'-O-MTase activity had enhanced sensitivity to type I interferon (IFN), they were not completely restored in their absence in vivo. However, the absence of either MDA5 or IFIT1, IFN-responsive genes that recognize unmethylated 2'-O RNA, resulted in restored replication and virulence of the dNSP16 mutant virus. Finally, using the mutant as a live-attenuated vaccine showed significant promise for possible therapeutic development against SARS-CoV. Together, the data underscore the necessity of 2'-O-MTase activity for SARS-CoV pathogenesis and identify host immune pathways that mediate this attenuation. In addition, we describe novel treatment avenues that exploit this pathway and could potentially be used against a diverse range of viral pathogens that utilize 2'-O-MTase activity to subvert the immune system.


Preventing recognition by the host immune response represents a critical aspect necessary for successful viral infection. Several viruses, including SARS-CoV, utilize virally encoded 2'-O-MTases to camouflage and obscure their viral RNA from host cell sensing machinery, thus preventing recognition and activation of cell intrinsic defense pathways. For SARS-CoV, the absence of this 2'-O-MTase activity results in significant attenuation characterized by decreased viral replication, reduced weight loss, and limited breathing dysfunction in mice. The results indicate that both MDA5, a recognition molecule, and the IFIT family play an important role in mediating this attenuation with restored virulence observed in their absence. Understanding this virus-host interaction provided an opportunity to design a successful live-attenuated vaccine for SARS-CoV and opens avenues for treatment and prevention of emerging CoVs and other RNA virus infections.

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