The mechanism of synthesis of the defective viral RNAs in cells infected with defective-interfering (DI) particles of mouse hepatitis virus was studied. Two DI-specific RNA species, DIssA of genomic size and DIssE of subgenomic size, were detected in DI-infected cells. Purified DI particles, however, were found to contain predominantly DIssA and only a trace amount of DIssE RNA. Despite its negligible amount, the DIssE RNA in virions appears to serve as the template for the synthesis of DIssE RNA in infected cells. This conclusion was supported by two studies. First, the uv target size for DIssE RNA synthesis is significantly smaller than that for DIssA. Second, when purified DIssE RNA was transfected into cells which had been infected with a helper virus, DIssE RNA could replicate itself and became a predominant RNA species in the infected cells. Thus, DIssE RNA was not synthesized from the genomic RNA of DI particles. By studying the relationship between virus dilution and the amount of intracellular viral RNA synthesis, we have further shown that DIssE RNA synthesis requires a helper function, but it does not utilize the leader sequence of the helper virus. In contrast, DIssA synthesis appears to be helper-independent and can replicate itself. Thus DIssA codes for a functional RNA polymerase.
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