Processing of Japanese encephalitis (JE) virus non-structural (NS) proteins expressed by recombinant vaccinia viruses was analysed to characterize the responsible viral protease. Analysis of the processing of polyprotein NS2A-2B-3' containing the N-terminal 322 amino acids of NS3 revealed products consistent with cleavages at the predicted intergenic junctions as well as at one or possibly two sites within NS2A. Cleavage at the alternate site(s) containing the cleavage sequence motif within NS2A could possibly explain the production of the NS1' protein in JE virus-infected cells. Polyprotein NS2A-d2B-3' containing a large deletion within NS2B was cleavage-defective, despite the presence of the proposed NS3 protease domain. Cleavage of NS2A-d2B-3' was restored if NS2B or NS2A-2B was supplied in trans, providing evidence that NS2B is strictly required for NS3 proteolytic activity. NS2B- or NS3-specific sera raised against the bacterial TrpE fusion protein co-precipitated NS2R and NS3 or NS3' from the lysate of JE virus or recombinant virus-infected cells. Thus both protease components are associated as a complex, presumably representing the active JE virus protease. JE virus and the analogous dengue 4 (DEN-4) protease components were employed to examine the activity of heterologous proteases. The defective cleavage of JE virus NS2A-d2B-3' was complemented by heterologous DEN-4 NS2B, whereas the defective cleavage of DEN-4 NS2A-d2B-3' was not corrected by heterologous JE virus NS2B. This suggests that the heterologous JE virus NS2B-DEN-4 NS3 protease is not active, despite the considerable sequence conservation of NS2B and NS3 between the two viruses. The cleavage activity was restored by replacement of the C-terminal 80 amino acids of JE virus NS2B with the corresponding DEN-4 sequence, consistent with the notion that the C-terminal region contains amino acid residues for interaction with DEN-4 NS3.
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