Construction of a Mouse Hepatitis Virus Recombinant Expressing a Foreign Gene
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The genome of the coronavirus mouse hepatitis virus (MHV) contains genes which have been shown to be nonessential for viral replication and which could, in principle, be used as sites for the introduction of foreign sequences. We have inserted heterologous genetic material into gene 4 of MHV in order (i) to test the applicability of targeted RNA recombination for site-directed mutagenesis of the MHV genome upstream of the N gene; (ii) to develop further genetic tools for mutagenesis of structural genes other than N; and (iii) to examine the feasibility of using MHV as an expression vector. A DI-like donor RNA vector containing the MHV S gene and all genes distal to S was constructed. Initially, a derivative of this was used to insert a 19-nucleotide tag into the start of ORF 4a of MHV-A59 using the N gene deletion mutant Alb4 as the recipient virus. Subsequently, the entire gene for the green fluorescent protein (GFP) was inserted in place of gene 4. This heterologous gene was shown to be expressed by recombinant viruses but not at levels sufficient to allow detection of fluorescence of viral plaques. Northern blot analysis of transcripts of GFP recombinants showed the expected displacement of the mobility, relative to those of wild-type, of all subgenomic mRNAs larger than mRNA5. An unexpected result of the Northern analysis was the observation that GFP recombinants also produced an RNA species the same size as that of wild-type mRNA4. RT-PCR analysis of the 5’ end of this species revealed that it was actually a collection of mRNAs originating from a cluster of 10 different sites, none of which possessed a canonical intergenic sequence. The finding of these aberrant mRNAs, all of nearly the same size as wild-type mRNA4, suggests that long range structure of the MHV genome can sometimes be the sole determinant of the site of initiation of transcription.