UBC Faculty Research and Publications

The papain-like protease of coronaviruses cleaves ULK1 to disrupt host autophagy Mohamud, Yasir; Xue, Yuan Chao; Liu, Huitao; Ng, Chen Seng; Bahreyni, Amirhossein; Jan, Eric; Luo, Honglin


The ongoing pandemic of COVID-19 alongside the outbreaks of SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012 underscore the significance to understand betacoronaviruses as a global health challenge. SARS-CoV-2, the etiological agent for COVID-19, has infected over 50 million individuals’ worldwide with more than ~1 million fatalities. Autophagy modulators have emerged as potential therapeutic candidates against SARS-CoV-2 but recent clinical setbacks urge for better understanding of viral subversion of autophagy. Using MHV-A59 as a model betacoronavirus, time-course infections revealed significant loss in the protein level of ULK1, a canonical autophagy-regulating kinase, and the concomitant appearance of a possible cleavage fragment. To investigate whether virus-encoded proteases target ULK1, we conducted in-vitro and cellular cleavage assays and identified ULK1 as a novel bona fide substrate of SARS-CoV-2 papain-like protease (PLpro). Mutagenesis studies discovered that ULK1 is cleaved at a conserved PLpro recognition sequence (LGGG) after G499, separating its N-terminal kinase domain from a Cterminal substrate recognition region. Over-expression of SARS-CoV-2 PLpro is sufficient to impair starvation-induced autophagy and disrupt formation of ULK1-ATG13 complex. Finally, we demonstrated a dual role for ULK1 in MHV-A59 replication, serving a pro-viral functions during early replication that is inactivated at late stages of infection. In conclusion, our study identified a new mechanism by which PLpro of betacoronaviruses induces viral pathogenesis by targeting cellular autophagy.

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