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J Virol. 2009 Aug;83(15):7411-21. doi: 10.1128/JVI.00079-09. Epub 2009 May 13.

Characterization of a highly conserved domain within the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus spike protein S2 domain with characteristics of a viral fusion peptide.

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Department of Microbiology and Immunology, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA.


Many viral fusion proteins are primed by proteolytic cleavage near their fusion peptides. While the coronavirus (CoV) spike (S) protein is known to be cleaved at the S1/S2 boundary, this cleavage site is not closely linked to a fusion peptide. However, a second cleavage site has been identified in the severe acute respiratory syndrome CoV (SARS-CoV) S2 domain (R797). Here, we investigated whether this internal cleavage of S2 exposes a viral fusion peptide. We show that the residues immediately C-terminal to the SARS-CoV S2 cleavage site SFIEDLLFNKVTLADAGF are very highly conserved across all CoVs. Mutagenesis studies of these residues in SARS-CoV S, followed by cell-cell fusion and pseudotyped virion infectivity assays, showed a critical role for residues L803, L804, and F805 in membrane fusion. Mutation of the most N-terminal residue (S798) had little or no effect on membrane fusion. Biochemical analyses of synthetic peptides corresponding to the proposed S2 fusion peptide also showed an important role for this region in membrane fusion and indicated the presence of alpha-helical structure. We propose that proteolytic cleavage within S2 exposes a novel internal fusion peptide for SARS-CoV S, which may be conserved across the Coronaviridae.

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