The E1 and E2 glycoproteins of hepatitis C virus form a noncovalently associated heterodimer that mediates viral entry. Glycoprotein E2 comprises a receptor-binding domain (residues 384-661) that is connected to the transmembrane domain (residues 716-746) via a highly conserved sequence containing a hydrophobic heptad repeat (residues 675-699). Alanine- and proline-scanning mutagenesis of the E2 heptad repeat revealed that Leu675, Ser678, Leu689, and Leu692 are important for E1E2 heterodimerization. Furthermore, Pro and Ala substitution of all but one heptad repeat residue (Ser678) blocked the entry of E1E2-HIV-1 pseudotypes into Huh7 cells, irrespective of an effect on heterodimerization.
Two conserved prolines (Pro676 and Pro683), occupying consecutive b positions of the heptad, were not required for E1E2 heterodimerization; however, Pro683 was critical for viral entry. Thus, disruption of the predicted alpha-helical structure by proline at position 683 is important for E2 function. The inability of mutants to mediate viral entry was not explained by a loss of receptor binding function, because all mutants were able to interact with a recombinant form of the CD81 large extracellular loop. Chimeras formed between the E1 and E2 ectodomains and the transmembrane domains of flavivirus prM and E glycoproteins, respectively, were able to heterodimerize, although with lower efficiency in comparison with wild type E1E2. The heptad repeat of E2 therefore requires the native transmembrane domain for full heterodimerization and viral entry function.
Our data indicate that the membraneproximal heptad repeat of E2 is functionally homologous to the stem of flavivirus E glycoproteins. We propose that E2 has mechanistic features in common with class II fusion proteins.