Utilization of heterologous alphavirus junction sequences as promoters by Sindbis virus

J. M. Hertz, H. V. Huang

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41 Scopus citations


We used Sindbis virus, an alphavirus, as a model to study the evolution of the recognition of viral cis-acting sequences. During the life cycle of alphaviruses, a full-length minus-strand RNA is made and serves as a template for both genomic RNA replication and subgenomic mRNA transcription. Transcription initiates at an internal promoter site, the junction sequence, to produce a subgenomic mRNA. The junction sequences of alphaviruses are highly conserved, but they do contain a number of base differences. These could have been essentially neutral mutations during evolution, such that any of the contemporary sequences can be recognized efficiently by any of the alphaviruses. Alternately, the changes could have resulted in significant functional divergence, such that the contemporary viruses can no longer recognize heterologous junction sequences as promoters. To distinguish between these possibilities, we constructed Sindbis virus derivatives with two subgenomic mRNA promoters. One is the wild-type Sindbis virus promoter used for expression of the structural proteins. The other is either the minimal Sindbis virus promoter or the corresponding junction sequences from other alphaviruses, which are placed upstream of the bacterial chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (CAT) gene. RNA analyses were used to determine the relative promoter strengths of the various junction sequences. The results showed that all but two were recognized as promoters by Sindbis virus. CAT enzyme assays were used to measure the accumulation of CAT protein made from mRNAs transcribed by using the heterologous junction sequences as promoters. Most of the viruses expressed amounts of CAT enzyme within 10-fold of each other. The two viruses with junction sequences that were not recognized as promoters did not give significant CAT expression. We conclude that, with respect to Sindbis virus, the junction sequences are functionally conserved; i.e., most of the contemporary nucleotide differences in the junction sequences are neutral or near-neutral mutations. The functional conservation suggests that neither the cis-acting sequence nor the cognate binding site of the transcription factor can change independently. This type of coupled evolution between cis-acting sequences and their cognate viral protein binding sites may be a general phenomenon. For example, it explains the ubiquitous presence of conserved cis-acting sequences in each of the families of RNA viruses. There are implications of this hypothesis for the design of antiviral drugs.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)857-864
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of virology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1992


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