The paramyxovirus fusion (F) protein mediates membrane fusion. The biologically active F protein consists of a membrane distal subunit, F2, and a membrane-anchored subunit, F1. We have identified a highly stable structure composed of peptides derived from the F1 heptad repeat A, which abuts the hydrophobic fusion peptide (peptide N-1), and the F1 heptad repeat B, located 270 residues downstream and adjacent to the transmembrane domain (peptides C-1 and C-2). In isolation, peptide N-1 is 47% α-helical and peptide C-1 and C-2 are unfolded. When mixed together, peptides N1 + C1 form a thermostable (T(m) >90°C), 82% α-helical, discrete trimer of heterodimers (mass 31,300 M(r)) that is resistant to denaturation by 2% SDS at 40°C. We suggest that this α-helical trimeric complex represents the core most stable form of the F protein that either is fusion competent or forms after fusion has occurred. Peptide C-1 is a potent inhibitor of both the lipid mixing and the aqueous content mixing fusion activity of the SV5 F protein. In contrast, peptides N-1 and N-2 inhibit cytoplasmic content mixing but not lipid mixing, leading to a stable hemifusion state. Thus, these peptides define functionally different steps in the fusion process. The parallels among both the fusion processes and the protein structures of paramyxovirus F proteins, HIV gp41, and influenza virus hemagglutinin are discussed, as the analogies are indicative of a conserved paradigm for fusion promotion among fusion proteins from widely disparate viruses.
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