UNLABELLED - The replication of coronaviruses occurs in association with multiple virus-induced membrane structures that evolve during the course of infection; however, the dynamics of this process remain poorly understood. Previous studies of coronavirus replication complex organization and protein interactions have utilized protein overexpression studies and immunofluorescence of fixed cells. Additionally, live-imaging studies of coronavirus replicase proteins have used fluorescent reporter molecules fused to replicase proteins, but expressed from nonnative locations, mostly late-transcribed subgenomic mRNAs, in the presence or absence of the native protein. Thus, the timing and targeting of native replicase proteins expressed in real time from native locations in the genome remain unknown. In this study, we tested whether reporter molecules could be expressed from the replicase polyprotein of murine hepatitis virus as fusions with nonstructural protein 2 or 3 and whether such reporters could define the targeting and activity of replicase proteins during infection. We demonstrate that the fusion of green fluorescent protein and firefly luciferase with either nonstructural protein 2 or 3 is tolerated and that these reporter-replicase fusions can be used to quantitate replication complex formation and virus replication. The results show that the replicase gene has flexibility to accommodate a foreign gene addition and can be used directly to study replicase complex formation and evolution during infection as well as to provide highly sensitive and specific markers for protein translation and genome replication.
IMPORTANCE - Coronaviruses are a family of enveloped, positive-sense RNA viruses that are important agents of disease, including severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus. Replication is associated with multiple virus-induced membrane structures that evolve during infection; however, the dynamics of this process remain poorly understood. In this study, we tested whether reporter molecules expressed from native locations within the replicase polyprotein of murine hepatitis virus as fusions with nonstructural proteins could define the expression and targeting of replicase proteins during infection in live cells. We demonstrate that the replicase gene tolerates the introduction of green fluorescent protein or firefly luciferase as fusions with replicase proteins. These viruses allow early quantitation of virus replication as well as real-time measurement of replication complexes.