Flavivirus nonstructural protein 2A (NS2A) plays important roles in both viral RNA synthesis and virion assembly. The molecular details of how the NS2A protein modulates the two distinct events have not been defined. To address this question, we have performed a systematic mutagenesis of NS2A using dengue virus (DENV) serotype 2 (DENV-2) as a model. We identified two sets of NS2A mutations with distinct defects during a viral infection cycle. One set of NS2A mutations (D125A and G200A) selectively abolished viral RNA synthesis. Mechanistically, the D125A mutation abolished viral RNA synthesis through blocking the N-terminal cleavage of the NS2A protein, leading to an unprocessed NS1-NS2A protein; this result suggests that amino acid D125 (far downstream of the N terminus of NS2A) may contribute to the recognition of host protease at the NS1-NS2A junction. The other set of NS2A mutations (G11A, E20A, E100A, Q187A, and K188A) specifically impaired virion assembly without significantly affecting viral RNA synthesis. Remarkably, mutants defective in virion assembly could be rescued by supplying in trans wild-type NS2A molecules expressed from a replicative replicon, by wild-type NS2A protein expressed alone, by a mutant NS2A (G200A) that is lethal for viral RNA synthesis, or by a different mutant NS2A that is defective in virion assembly. In contrast, none of the mutants defective in viral RNA synthesis could be rescued by trans-complementation. Collectively, the results indicate that two distinct sets of NS2A molecules are responsible for DENV RNA synthesis and virion assembly.
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