Identification of a noncanonically transcribed subgenomic mRNA of infectious bronchitis virus and other gammacoronaviruses

Coronavirus subgenomic mRNA (sgmRNA) synthesis occurs via a process of discontinuous transcription involving transcription regulatory sequences (TRSs) located in the 5? leader sequence (TRS-L) and upstream of each structural and group-specific gene (TRS-B). Several gammacoronaviruses including infectious bronchitis virus (IBV) contain a putative open reading frame (ORF), localized between the M gene and gene 5, which is controversial due to the perceived absence of a TRS. We have studied the transcription of a novel sgmRNA associated with this potential ORF and found it to be transcribed via a previously unidentified noncanonical TRS-B. Using an IBV reverse genetics system, we demonstrated that the template-switching event during intergenic region (IR) sgmRNA synthesis occurs at the 5? end of the noncanonical TRS-B and recombines between nucleotides 5 and 6 of the 8-nucleotide consensus TRS-L. Introduction of a complete TRS-B showed that higher transcription levels are achieved by increasing the number of nucleotide matches between TRS-L and TRS-B. Translation of a protein from the sgmRNA was demonstrated using enhanced green fluorescent protein, suggesting the translation of a fifth, novel, group-specific protein for IBV. This study has resolved an issue concerning the number of ORFs expressed by members of the Gammacoronavirus genus and proposes the existence of a fifth IBV accessory protein. We confirmed previous reports that coronaviruses can produce sgmRNAs from noncanonical TRS-Bs, which may expand their repertoire of proteins. We also demonstrated that noncanonical TRS-Bs may provide a mechanism by which coronaviruses can control protein expression levels by reducing sgmRNA synthesis.

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