The A7 (74) strain of Semliki Forest virus (SFV, genus Alphavirus) is avirulent in adult mice, while the L10 strain is virulent in mice of all ages. It has been previously demonstrated that this phenotypic difference is associated with nonstructural protein 3 (nsP3). Consensus clones of L10 (designated SFV6) and A7 (74) (designated A774wt) were used to construct a panel of recombinant viruses. The insertion of nsP3 from A774wt into the SFV6 backbone had a minor effect on the virulence of the resulting recombinant virus. Conversely, insertion of nsP3 from SFV6 into the A774wt backbone or replacement of A774wt nsP3 with two copies of nsP3 from SFV6 resulted in virulent viruses. Unexpectedly, duplication of nsP3 encoding sequences also resulted in elevated levels of nsP4, revealing that nsP3 is involved in the stabilization of nsP4. Interestingly, replacement of nsP3 of SFV6 with that of A774wt resulted in a virulent virus; the virulence of this recombinant was strongly reduced by functionally coupled substitutions of amino acid residues 534 (P4-position of the cleavage site between nsP1 and nsP2) and 1052 (S4 subsite residue of nsP2 protease) in the nonstructural polyprotein. Pulse-chase experiments revealed that A774wt and avirulent recombinant virus were characterized by increased processing speed of the cleavage site between nsP1 and nsP2. A His534 to Arg substitution specifically activated this cleavage, while a Val1052 to Glu substitution compensated for this effect by reducing the basal protease activity of nsP2. These findings provide a link between nonstructural polyprotein processing and the virulence of SFV.
IMPORTANCE: SFV infection of mice provides a well-characterized model to study viral encephalitis. SFV also serves as a model for studies of alphavirus molecular biology and host-pathogen interactions. Thus far, the genetic basis of different properties of SFV strains has been studied using molecular clones, which often contain mistakes originating from standard cDNA synthesis and cloning procedures. Here, for the first time, consensus clones of SFV strains were used to map virulence determinants. Existing data on the importance of nsP3 for virulent phenotypes was confirmed, another determinant of neurovirulence and its molecular basis was characterized, and a novel function of nsP3 was identified. These findings provide links between the molecular biology of SFV and its biological properties and significantly increase our understanding of the basis of alphavirus-induced pathology. In addition, the usefulness of consensus clones as tools for studies of alphaviruses was demonstrated.