To test the hypothesis that the 65-nucleotide (nt) leader on subgenomic mRNAs suffices as a 5'-terminal cis-acting signal for RNA replication, a corollary to the notion that coronavirus mRNAs behave as replicons, synthetic RNA transcripts of a cloned, reporter-containing N mRNA (mRNA 7) of the bovine coronavirus with a precise 5' terminus and a 3' poly(A) of 68 nt were tested for replication after being transfected into helper virus-infected cells. No replication was observed, but synthetic transcripts of a cloned reporter-containing defective interfering (DI) RNA differing from the N mRNA construct by 433 nt of continuous 5'-proximal genomic sequence between the leader and the N open reading frame did replicate and become packaged, indicating the insufficiency of the leader alone as a 5' signal for replication of transfected RNA molecules. The leader was shown to be a necessary part of the cis-acting signal for DI RNA replication, however, since removal of terminal bases that destroyed a predicted intraleader stem-loop also destroyed replicating ability. Surprisingly, when the same stem-loop was disrupted by base substitutions, replication appeared only minimally impaired and the leader was found to have rapidly reverted to wild type during DI RNA replication, a phenomenon reminiscent of high-frequency leader switching in the mouse hepatitis coronavirus. These results suggest that once a minimal structural requirement for leader is fulfilled for initiation of DI RNA replication, the wild-type leader is strongly preferred for subsequent replication. They also demonstrate that, in contrast to reported natural mouse hepatitis coronavirus DI RNAs, the DI RNA of the bovine coronavirus does not require sequence elements originating from discontinuous downstream regions within the polymerase gene for replication or for packaging.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/david_brian/25/