Mechanisms leading to subgenomic mRNA (sgmRNA) synthesis in coronaviruses are poorly understood but are known to involve a heptameric signaling motif, originally called the intergenic sequence. The intergenic sequence is the presumed crossover region (fusion site) for RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp) during discontinuous transcription, a process leading to sgmRNAs that are both 5' and 3' coterminal. In the bovine coronavirus, the major fusion site for synthesis of mRNA 5 (GGUAGAC) does not conform to the canonical motif (UC[U,C]AAAC) at three positions (underlined), yet it lies just 14 nucleotides downstream from such a sequence (UCCAAAC). The infrequently used canonical sequence, by computer prediction, is buried within the stem of a stable hairpin (-17.2 kcal/mol). Here we document the existence of this stem by enzyme probing and examine its influence and that of neighboring sequences on the unusual choice of fusion sites by analyzing transcripts made in vivo from mutated defective interfering RNA constructs. We learned that (i) mutations that were predicted to unfold the stem-loop in various ways did not switch RdRp crossover to the upstream canonical site, (ii) a totally nonconforming downstream motif resulted in no measurable transcription from either site, (iii) the canonical upstream site does not function ectopically to lend competence to the downstream noncanonical site, and (iv) altering flanking sequences downstream of the downstream noncanonical motif in ways that diminish sequence similarity with the virus genome 5' end caused a dramatic switch to the upstream canonical site. These results show that sequence elements downstream of the noncanonical site can dramatically influence the choice of fusion sites for synthesis of mRNA 5 and are interpreted as being most consistent with a mechanism of similarity-assisted RdRp strand switching during minus-strand synthesis.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/david_brian/13/