Previous studies indicate that the processing of hepatitis C virus (HCV) E2-p7-NS2 precursor mediated by host signal peptidase is relatively inefficient, resulting in the accumulation of E2-p7-NS2 and E2-p7 precursors in addition to E2 in mammalian cells. In this study, we discovered that a significant inhibition of the processing at an E2-p7 junction site is detrimental for HCV production, whether it was caused by the mutations in p7 or by the strategic introduction of a mutation at a terminal residue of E2 to block the signal peptidase-mediated cleavage of this junction site. However, complete separation of E2 and p7 by inserting an encephalomyocarditis virus (EMCV) internal ribosome entry site (IRES) between these two proteins also moderately inhibited virus production. These results indicate that optimal processing of the E2-p7 junction site is critical for efficient HCV production. We further demonstrated that disrupting E2-p7 processing inhibits both NS2 localization to the putative virus assembly sites near lipid droplets (LD) and NS2 interaction with NS3 and E2. However, the impact, if any, of the p7-NS2 processing efficiency on HCV production seems relatively minor. In conclusion, these results imply that effective release of E2 and p7 from the precursor E2-p7 promotes HCV production by enhancing NS2-associated virus assembly complex formation near LD.
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