Seven to eight species of viral subgenomic mRNAs are produced in coronavirus-infected cells. These mRNAs are produced in different quantities, and their molar ratios remain constant during viral replication. We studied RNA elements that affect coronavirus transcription efficiency by characterizing a series of cloned coronavirus mouse hepatitis virus (MHV) defective interfering (DI) RNAs containing an inserted intergenic sequence, from which subgenomic DI RNA is transcribed in MHV-infected cells. Certain combinations of upstream and downstream flanking sequences of the intergenic sequence suppressed subgenomic DI RNA transcription, yet changing one of the flanking sequences to a different sequence eliminated transcription suppression. The suppressive effect of certain combinations of flanking sequences, but not all combinations, could be counteracted by altering the intergenic sequence. Thus, the combination of intergenic sequence and flanking sequence affected transcription efficiency. We also characterized another set of DI RNAs designed to clarify which transcription step determines the relative molar ratios of coronavirus mRNAs. Our study indicated that if subgenomic mRNAs were exclusively synthesized from negative-strand genomic RNA, then the relative molar ratios of coronavirus mRNAs were most likely determined after synthesis of the genomic-sized template RNA. If negative-strand subgenomic RNAs were templates for subgenomic mRNAs, then the relative molar ratios of coronavirus mRNAs probably were determined after synthesis of the genomic-sized template RNA used for subgenomic-sized RNA transcription but prior to the completion of the synthesis of subgenomic-sized RNAs containing the leader sequence. The relative molar ratios of coronavirus mRNAs, therefore, seem to have been established prior to a putative replicon-type amplification of subgenomic mRNAs.
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