Astroviruses are small, non-enveloped, positive-sense RNA viruses that infect humans, mammals and birds, posing a serious threat to human health and the well being of wild animals and economically important livestock. Among the four plus-sense, single-stranded RNA viruses that infect human (i.e. picornaviruses, caliciviruses, hepatitis E viruses, and astroviruses), astroviruses are the least characterized ones. The ~7kb genome of astrovirus encodes the nonstructural protein nsp1a and nsp1ab and the viral capsid protein CP. A low resolution cryo-EM reconstruction of a human astrovirus shows that the viral capsid consists of a continuous capsid shell with 30 protruding spikes. Our laboratory recently determined the crystal structure of the astrovirus spike, which reveals unexpected structural homology between the CPs of astrovirus and the hepatitis E virus (HEV). Compared to other non-enveloped, positive-sense RNA viruses, astroviruses are unique in several aspects: (1) Virus infectivity requires extensive proteolytic processing of the viral capsid by host extracellulr proteases;(2) The 125aa C-terminal domain of the viral CP is removed by host caspases following viral assembly;and (3) Astroviruses appear to encode a VPg similar to the VPg found in caliciviruses, despite the fact that the astrovirus CP structurally resembles the HEV CP and that HEV RNA has a 5'-cap. Using recombinant proteins, we have unambiguously demonstrated the astrovirus VPg can be uridylated by the cognate viral RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRP) and have mapped the uridylation site to Tyr-30. To provide a better understanding of astrovirus assembly, maturation, and replication, here we propose to carry out detailed structural and functional analyses of the astrovirus CP, VPg and RdRP. Our research will help delineate major similarities and differences in the fundamental biology of astroviruses, HEV, and caliciviruses. Moreover, our results will likely have important applications in treating astrovirus infection.
Aim 1. The assembly and maturation of the astrovirus capsid. First, to determine how the astrovirus CP C- terminal domain functions to promote virus assembly, we will solve its structure, determine its subcellular localization, and search for cellular proteins that it interacs with to promote assembly. Second, to elucidate the mechanism of astrovirus maturation, we will determine how trypsin treatment changes the protein composition, biochemical properties and the structural conformation of the astrovirus capsid.
Aim 2. The mechanism of astrovirus RNA replication. We will experimentally map the sequence of the virion- associated astrovirus VPg. Furthermore, we will identify important protein amino acid and viral RNA determinants for astrovirus VPg uridylation. To understand the molecular events occurring during the different stages of VPg-primed RNA synthesis, we will determine the crystal structures of an apo RdRP, a native VPg, and an RdRP-VPg complex bound to a nucleotide substrate. The structure of the complex will reveal whether the same catalytic mechanism is used for both VPg nucleotidylation and regular nucleotide polymerization.

Public Health Relevance

Human astroviruses are one of the leading causes of gastroenteritis in young children, the elderly, and immuno-compromised adults. In this grant, we propose to study several fundamental issues related to astrovirus assembly, maturation, and replication by employing a wide array of complementary techniques such as biochemical assays, crystallography, cryo-EM, and NMR spectroscopy. Results from our research will likely yield promising applications in antiviral development.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Exploratory/Developmental Grants (R21)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1)
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Cassels, Frederick J
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Rice University
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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