All members of the Caliciviridae family of viruses produce a subgenomic RNA during infection. The subgenomic RNA typically encodes only the major and minor capsid proteins, but in murine norovirus (MNV), the subgenomic RNA also encodes the VF1 protein, which functions to suppress host innate immune responses. To date, the mechanism of norovirus subgenomic RNA synthesis has not been characterized. We have previously described the presence of an evolutionarily conserved RNA stem-loop structure on the negative-sense RNA, the complementary sequence of which codes for the viral RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (NS7). The conserved stem-loop is positioned 6 nucleotides 3' of the start site of the subgenomic RNA in all caliciviruses. We demonstrate that the conserved stem-loop is essential for MNV viability. Mutant MNV RNAs with substitutions in the stem-loop replicated poorly until they accumulated mutations that revert to restore the stem-loop sequence and/or structure. The stem-loop sequence functions in a noncoding context, as it was possible to restore the replication of an MNV mutant by introducing an additional copy of the stem-loop between the NS7- and VP1-coding regions. Finally, in vitro biochemical data suggest that the stem-loop sequence is sufficient for the initiation of viral RNA synthesis by the recombinant MNV RNA-dependent RNA polymerase, confirming that the stem-loop forms the core of the norovirus subgenomic promoter.
IMPORTANCE: Noroviruses are a significant cause of viral gastroenteritis, and it is important to understand the mechanism of norovirus RNA synthesis. Here we describe the identification of an RNA stem-loop structure that functions as the core of the norovirus subgenomic RNA promoter in cells and in vitro. This work provides new insights into the molecular mechanisms of norovirus RNA synthesis and the sequences that determine the recognition of viral RNA by the RNA-dependent RNA polymerase.