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The deubiquitinating activity of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus papain-like protease delays the innate immune response and enhances virulence in a mouse model

By Robert C. M. Knaap, Raúl Fernández-Delgado, Tim J. Dalebout, Nadia Oreshkova, Peter J. Bredenbeek, Luis Enjuanes, Isabel Sola, Eric J. Snijder, Marjolein Kikkert

Posted 29 Aug 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/751578

Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) continues to cause zoonotic infections and serious disease, primarily in the Arabian Peninsula, due to repeated spill-over from dromedary camels and subsequent nosocomial transmission. Approved MERS vaccines for use in animals or humans are not currently available. MERS-CoV replication requires the virus-encoded papain-like protease (PLpro) to cleave multiple sites in the viral replicase polyproteins, thereby releasing functional non-structural proteins. Additionally, PLpro is a deubiquitinating enzyme (DUB) that can remove ubiquitin(-like) moieties from substrates, presumably to counteract host antiviral responses. In previous work, we determined the crystal structure of MERS-CoV PLpro in complex with ubiquitin, facilitating the design of PLpro mutations that impair DUB activity without affecting viral polyprotein cleavage. Here, we introduced these DUB-inactivating mutations into the viral genome and examined their impact on MERS-CoV infection both in cell culture and in a lethal mouse model. Although overall replication of DUB-negative and wild-type (wt) recombinant MERS-CoV was comparable in multiple cell lines, infection with DUB-negative virus markedly increased mRNA levels for interferon (IFN)-β and IFN-stimulated genes. Moreover, compared to a wt virus infection, the survival rate was significantly increased when DUB-negative MERS-CoV was used to infect transgenic mice expressing a human MERS-CoV receptor. Interestingly, DUB-negative and wt MERS-CoV replicated to the same titers in lungs of infected mice, but the DUB-negative virus was cleared faster, likely due to the observed accelerated and better-regulated innate immune responses, in contrast to delayed and subsequently excessive responses in wt virus-infected mice. This study provides the first direct evidence that the DUB activity of a coronaviral protease contributes to innate immune evasion and can profoundly enhance virulence in an animal model. Thus, reduction or removal of the innate immune-suppressive DUB activity of PLpros is a promising strategy for coronavirus attenuation in the context of rational vaccine development.

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