The Coronavirus Replicase

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Abstract

Coronavirus genome replication and transcription take place at cytoplasmic membranes and involve coordinated processes of both continuous and discontinuous RNA synthesis that are mediated by the viral replicase, a huge protein complex encoded by the 20-kb replicase gene. The replicase complex is believed to be comprised of up to 16 viral subunits and a number of cellular proteins. Besides RNA-dependent RNA polymerase, RNA helicase, and protease activities, which are common to RNA viruses, the coronavirus replicase was recently predicted to employ a variety of RNA processing enzymes that are not (or extremely rarely) found in other RNA viruses and include putative sequence-specific endoribonuclease, 3′-to-5′ exoribonuclease, 2′-O-ribose methyltransferase, ADP ribose 1′-phosphatase and, in a subset of group 2 coronaviruses, cyclic phosphodiesterase activities. This chapter reviews (1) the organization of the coronavirus replicase gene, (2) the proteolytic processing of the replicase by viral proteases, (3) the available functional and structural information on individual subunits of the replicase, such as proteases, RNA helicase, and the RNA-dependent RNA polymerase, and (4) the subcellular localization of coronavirus proteins involved in RNA synthesis. Although many molecular details of the coronavirus life cycle remain to be investigated, the available information suggests that these viruses and their distant nidovirus relatives employ a unique collection of enzymatic activities and other protein functions to synthesize a set of 5′-leader-containing subgenomic mRNAs and to replicate the largest RNA virus genomes currently known.