DOI: 10.1128/jvi.01975-23 ISSN: 0022-538X

Alternative translation contributes to the generation of a cytoplasmic subpopulation of the Junín virus nucleoprotein that inhibits caspase activation and innate immunity

Linus Bostedt, Lucie Fénéant, Anne Leske, Julia Holzerland, Karla Günther, Irke Waßmann, Patrick Bohn, Allison Groseth
  • Virology
  • Insect Science
  • Immunology
  • Microbiology


The highly pathogenic arenavirus, Junín virus (JUNV), expresses three truncated alternative isoforms of its nucleoprotein (NP), i.e., NP 53kD , NP 47kD , and NP 40kD . While both NP 47kD and NP 40kD have been previously shown to be products of caspase cleavage, here, we show that expression of the third isoform NP 53kD is due to alternative in-frame translation from M80. Based on this information, we were able to generate recombinant JUNVs lacking each of these isoforms. Infection with these mutants revealed that, while all three isoforms contribute to the efficient control of caspase activation, NP 40kD plays the predominant role. In contrast to full-length NP (i.e., NP 65kD ), which is localized to inclusion bodies, where viral RNA synthesis takes place, the loss of portions of the N-terminal coiled-coil region in these isoforms leads to a diffuse cytoplasmic distribution and a loss of function in viral RNA synthesis. Nonetheless, NP 53kD , NP 47kD , and NP 40kD all retain robust interferon antagonistic and 3′−5′ exonuclease activities. We suggest that the altered localization of these NP isoforms allows them to be more efficiently targeted by activated caspases for cleavage as decoy substrates, and to be better positioned to degrade viral double-stranded (ds)RNA species that accumulate in the cytoplasm during virus infection and/or interact with cytosolic RNA sensors, thereby limiting dsRNA-mediated innate immune responses. Taken together, this work provides insight into the mechanism by which JUNV leverages apoptosis during infection to generate biologically distinct pools of NP and contributes to our understanding of the expression and biological relevance of alternative protein isoforms during virus infection.


A limited coding capacity means that RNA viruses need strategies to diversify their proteome. The nucleoprotein (NP) of the highly pathogenic arenavirus Junín virus (JUNV) produces three N-terminally truncated isoforms: two (NP 47kD and NP 40kD ) are known to be produced by caspase cleavage, while, here, we show that NP 53kD is produced by alternative translation initiation. Recombinant JUNVs lacking individual NP isoforms revealed that all three isoforms contribute to inhibiting caspase activation during infection, but cleavage to generate NP 40kD makes the biggest contribution. Importantly, all three isoforms retain their ability to digest double-stranded (ds)RNA and inhibit interferon promoter activation but have a diffuse cytoplasmic distribution. Given the cytoplasmic localization of both aberrant viral dsRNAs, as well as dsRNA sensors and many other cellular components of innate immune activation pathways, we suggest that the generation of NP isoforms not only contributes to evasion of apoptosis but also robust control of the antiviral response.

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