Viral Enzymes


We study two important enzymes from the picornal family of positive-strand RNA viruses - the 3C protease and the 3D RNA-dependent RNA polymerase. Both enzymes are critical for the replication of viruses in cells, and both are proposed anti-viral targets.

Conformational dynamics of poliovirus RNA-dependent RNA polymerase

The genomes of RNA viruses are replicated by the virally-encoded RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp). Our group studies the structure, function and conformational dynamics of the RdRp from poliovirus (also known as 3Dpol). Our initial studies were prompted by finding active-site remote mutations that change polymerase function and fidelity without significantly changing the protein structure. Our hypothesis is that the conformational dynamics of 3Dpol play an important role in the enzyme function and in polymerase fidelity.

We use NMR spectroscopy to monitor the conformational dynamics of 3Dpol across multiple timescales.   Our initial studies revealed that there are extensive, long-range dynamic networks important the function and fidelity of 3Dpol. Modifying amino acids on this network lead to changes in enzyme function and protein structure/dynamics.

The fidelity of the poliovirus RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (3D(pol)) plays a direct role in the genomic evolution and pathogenesis of the virus. A single site mutation (Gly64Ser) that is remote from the catalytic center results in a higher fidelity polymerase. NMR studies with [methyl-(13)C]methionine-labeled protein were used to compare the solution structure and dynamics of wild-type and Gly64Ser 3D(pol). The chemical shifts for the Met6 resonance were significantly different between wild-type and Gly64Ser 3D(pol) when bound in ternary complexes with RNA and incorrect, but not with correct, nucleotide, suggesting that the Gly64Ser mutation induces structural changes in the N-terminal β-strand when the enzyme is bound to incorrect but not correct nucleotide. We also observe changes in the transverse relaxation times for methionines near regions important for nucleotide and RNA binding and catalysis. Our strategy to assign the [methyl-(13)C]methionine resonances involved separately mutating each of the 17 methionines. Several substitutions produced additional resonances for both Met6 and Met187, a reporter for RNA binding, and conformational changes in the highly conserved motif B loop, even though these methionines are greater than 20 Å apart. The results for Gly64Ser and the other mutants are intriguing considering that they can result in structural and/or dynamic changes to methionines distant from the site of mutation. We propose that there is a long-distance network operating throughout 3D(pol) that coordinates ligand binding, conformational changes, and catalysis. Mutation of Gly64 results in structural and/or dynamic changes to the network that may affect polymerase fidelity.

Fast, accurate nucleotide incorporation by polymerases facilitates expression and maintenance of genomes. Many polymerases use conformational dynamics of a conserved α helix to permit efficient nucleotide addition only when the correct nucleotide substrate is bound. This α helix is missing in structures of RNA-dependent RNA polymerases (RdRps) and RTs. Here, we use solution-state nuclear magnetic resonance to demonstrate that the conformation of conserved structural motif D of an RdRp is linked to the nature (correct versus incorrect) of the bound nucleotide and the protonation state of a conserved, motif-D lysine. Structural data also reveal the inability of motif D to achieve its optimal conformation after incorporation of an incorrect nucleotide. Functional data are consistent with the conformational change of motif D becoming rate limiting during and after nucleotide misincorporation. We conclude that motif D of RdRps and, by inference, RTs is the functional equivalent to the fidelity helix of other polymerases.

All viral RNA-dependent RNA polymerases (RdRps) have a conserved structural element termed motif D. Studies of the RdRp from poliovirus (PV) have shown that a conformational change of motif D leads to efficient and faithful nucleotide addition by bringing Lys-359 into the active site where it serves as a general acid. The RdRp of the Sabin I vaccine strain has Thr-362 changed to Ile. Such a drastic change so close to Lys-359 might alter RdRp function and contribute in some way to the attenuated phenotype of Sabin type I. Here we present our characterization of the T362I RdRp. We find that the T362I RdRp exhibits a mutator phenotype in biochemical experiments in vitro. Using NMR, we show that this change in nucleotide incorporation fidelity correlates with a change in the structural dynamics of motif D. A recombinant PV expressing the T362I RdRp exhibits normal growth properties in cell culture but expresses a mutator phenotype in cells. For example, the T362I-containing PV is more sensitive to the mutagenic activity of ribavirin than wild-type PV. Interestingly, the T362I change was sufficient to cause a statistically significant reduction in viral virulence. Collectively, these studies suggest that residues of motif D can be targeted when changes in nucleotide incorporation fidelity are desired. Given the observation that fidelity mutants can serve as vaccine candidates, it may be possible to use engineering of motif D for this purpose.