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Open Access Research article

Characterization of a ranavirus inhibitor of the antiviral protein kinase PKR

Stefan Rothenburg12*, V Gregory Chinchar3 and Thomas E Dever1

Author Affiliations

1 Laboratory of Gene Regulation and Development, NICHD, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA

2 Division of Biology, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS 66506, USA

3 Department of Microbiology, University of Mississippi Medical Center, Jackson, MS 39216, USA

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BMC Microbiology 2011, 11:56  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-11-56

Published: 18 March 2011

Abstract

Background

Ranaviruses (family Iridoviridae) are important pathogens of lower vertebrates. However, little is known about how they circumvent the immune response of their hosts. Many ranaviruses contain a predicted protein, designated vIF2α, which shows homology with the eukaryotic translation initiation factor 2α. In analogy to distantly related proteins found in poxviruses vIF2α might act as an inhibitor of the antiviral protein kinase PKR.

Results

We have characterized the function of vIF2α from Rana catesbeiana virus Z (RCV-Z). Multiple sequence alignments and secondary structure prediction revealed homology of vIF2α with eIF2α throughout the S1-, helical- and C-terminal domains. Genetic and biochemical analyses showed that vIF2α blocked the toxic effects of human and zebrafish PKR in a heterologous yeast system. Rather than complementing eIF2α function, vIF2α acted in a manner comparable to the vaccinia virus (VACV) K3L protein (K3), a pseudosubstrate inhibitor of PKR. Both vIF2α and K3 inhibited human PKR-mediated eIF2α phosphorylation, but not PKR autophosphorylation on Thr446. In contrast the E3L protein (E3), another poxvirus inhibitor of PKR, inhibited both Thr446 and eIF2α Ser51 phosphorylation. Interestingly, phosphorylation of eIF2α by zebrafish PKR was inhibited by vIF2α and E3, but not by K3. Effective inhibition of PKR activity coincided with increased PKR expression levels, indicative of relieved autoinhibition of PKR expression. Experiments with vIF2α deletion constructs, showed that both the N-terminal and helical domains were sufficient for inhibition of PKR, whereas the C-terminal domain was dispensable.

Conclusions

Our results show that RCV-Z vIF2α is a functional inhibitor of human and zebrafish PKR, and probably functions in similar fashion as VACV K3. This constitutes an important step in understanding the interaction of ranaviruses and the host innate immune system.