Residues of the human metapneumovirus fusion (f) protein critical for its strain-related fusion phenotype: Implications for the virus replication cycle
The paramyxovirus F protein promotes fusion of the viral and cell membranes for virus entry, as well as cell-cell fusion for syncytium formation. Most paramyxovirus F proteins are triggered at neutral pH to initiate membrane fusion. Previous studies, however, demonstrated that human metapneumovirus (hMPV) F proteins are triggered at neutral or acidic pH in transfected cells, depending on the strain origin of the F sequences (S. Herfst et al., J. Virol. 82:8891-8895, 2008). We now report an extensive mutational analysis which identifies four variable residues (294, 296, 396, and 404) as the main determinants of the different syncytial phenotypes found among hMPV F proteins. These residues lie near two conserved histidines (H368 and H435) in a three-dimensional (3D) model of the pretriggered hMPV F trimer. Mutagenesis of H368 and H435 indicates that protonation of these histidines (particularly His435) is a key event to destabilize the hMPV F proteins that require low pH for cell-cell fusion. The syncytial phenotypes were reproduced in cells infected with the corresponding hMPV strains. However, the low-pH dependency for syncytium formation could not be related with a virus entry pathway dependent on an acidic environment. It is postulated that low pH may be acting for some hMPV strains as certain destabilizing mutations found in unusual strains of other paramyxoviruses. In any case, the results presented here and those reported by Schowalter et al. (J. Virol. 83:1511-1522, 2009) highlight the relevance of certain residues in the linker region and domain II of the pretriggered hMPV F protein for the process of membrane fusion.