SARS-CoV-2 ORF8 Forms Intracellular Aggregates and Inhibits IFNγ-Induced Antiviral Gene Expression in Human Lung Epithelial Cells

Hua Geng, Saravanan Subramanian, Longtao Wu, Heng Fu Bu, Xiao Wang, Chao Du, Isabelle G. De Plaen, Xiao Di Tan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Infection with the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) causes COVID-19, a disease that involves significant lung tissue damage. How SARS-CoV-2 infection leads to lung injury remains elusive. The open reading frame 8 (ORF8) protein of SARS-CoV-2 (ORF8SARS-CoV-2) is a unique accessory protein, yet little is known about its cellular function. We examined the cellular distribution of ORF8SARS-CoV-2 and its role in the regulation of human lung epithelial cell proliferation and antiviral immunity. Using live imaging and immunofluorescent staining analyses, we found that ectopically expressed ORF8SARS-CoV-2 forms aggregates in the cytosol and nuclear compartments of lung epithelial cells. Using in silico bioinformatic analysis, we found that ORF8SARS-CoV-2 possesses an intrinsic aggregation characteristic at its N-terminal residues 1-18. Cell culture did not reveal any effects of ORF8SARS-CoV-2 expression on lung epithelial cell proliferation and cell cycle progression, suggesting that ORF8SARS-CoV-2 aggregates do not affect these cellular processes. Interestingly, ectopic expression of ORF8SARS-CoV-2 in lung epithelial cells suppressed basal expression of several antiviral molecules, including DHX58, ZBP1, MX1, and MX2. In addition, expression of ORF8SARS-CoV-2 attenuated the induction of antiviral molecules by IFNγ but not by IFNβ in lung epithelial cells. Taken together, ORF8SARS-CoV-2 is a unique viral accessory protein that forms aggregates when expressing in lung epithelial cells. It potently inhibits the expression of lung cellular anti-viral proteins at baseline and in response to IFNγ in lung epithelial cells, which may facilitate SARS-CoV-2 escape from the host antiviral innate immune response during early viral infection. In addition, it seems that formation of ORF8SARS-CoV-2 aggregate is independent from the viral infection. Thus, it would be interesting to examine whether any COVID-19 patients exhibit persistent ORF8 SARS-CoV-2 expression after recovering from SARS-CoV-2 infection. If so, the pathogenic effect of prolonged ORF8SARS-CoV-2 expression and its association with post-COVID symptoms warrant investigation in the future.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)679482
Number of pages1
JournalFrontiers in immunology
StatePublished - 2021


  • ORF8
  • SARS-CoV-2 accessory protein
  • inflammation
  • interferon signaling
  • lung epithelial cells

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology and Allergy
  • Immunology


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