Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV) open reading frame (ORF) 2a contains a small internal ORF (2b) capable of encoding a protein of 73 aa, termed E protein. The function of E protein is currently unknown. The E protein possesses two cysteines at positions 49 and 54 that are highly conserved among North American isolates. In the present study, it was shown that E protein did not homodimerize with itself nor did it heterodimerize with the nucleocapsid (N) protein. However, E protein was interactive non-covalently with itself or with the N protein as shown by pull-down assays. The significance of the E protein cysteine residues on virus replication was determined using an infectious clone. Each cysteine was substituted by serine and the mutations were introduced into a full-length clone of PRRSV. When transfected into Marc-145 cells, all cysteine mutant clones induced PRRSV-specific cytopathic effects and produced infectious progeny virus. The data indicate that cysteine residues in the E protein are not essential for replication of North American genotype PRRSV.
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