Coronavirus contains three envelope proteins, M, E and S, and a nucleocapsid, which consists of genomic RNA and N protein, within the viral envelope. We studied the macromolecular interactions involved in coronavirus assembly in cells infected with a murine coronavirus, mouse hepatitis virus (MHV). Coimmunoprecipitation analyses demonstrated an interaction between N protein and M protein in infected cells. Pulse-labeling experiments showed that newly synthesized, unglycosylated M protein interacted with N protein in a pre-Golgi compartment, which is part of the MHV budding site. Coimmunoprecipitation analyses further revealed that M protein interacted with only genomic-length MHV mRNA, mRNA 1, while N protein interacted with all MHV mRNAs. These data indicated that M protein interacted with the nucleocapsid, consisting of N protein and mRNA 1, in infected cells. The M protein-nucleocapsid interaction occurred in the absence of S and E proteins. Intracellular M protein-N protein interaction was maintained after removal of viral RNAs by RNase treatment. However, the M protein-N protein interaction did not occur in cells coexpressing M protein and N protein alone. These data indicated that while the M protein-N protein interaction, which is independent of viral RNA, occurred in the M protein-nucleocapsid complex, some MHV function(s) was necessary for the initiation of M protein-nucleocapsid interaction. The M protein-nucleocapsid interaction, which occurred near or at the MHV budding site, most probably represented the process of specific packaging of the MHV genome into MHV particles.
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