Herpesviruses encode a characteristic serine protease with a unique fold and an active site that comprises the unusual triad Ser-His-His. The protease is essential for viral replication and as such constitutes a promising drug target. In solution, a dynamic equilibrium exists between an inactive monomeric and an active dimeric form of the enzyme, which is believed to play a key regulatory role in the orchestration of proteolysis and capsid assembly. Currently available crystal structures of herpesvirus proteases correspond either to the dimeric state or to complexes with peptide mimetics that alter the dimerization interface. In contrast, the structure of the native monomeric state has remained elusive. Here, we present the three-dimensional structures of native monomeric, active dimeric, and diisopropyl fluorophosphate-inhibited dimeric protease derived from pseudorabies virus, an alphaherpesvirus of swine. These structures, solved by X-ray crystallography to respective resolutions of 2.05, 2.10 and 2.03 Å, allow a direct comparison of the main conformational states of the protease. In the dimeric form, a functional oxyanion hole is formed by a loop of 10 amino-acid residues encompassing two consecutive arginine residues (Arg136 and Arg137); both are strictly conserved throughout the herpesviruses. In the monomeric form, the top of the loop is shifted by approximately 11 Å, resulting in a complete disruption of the oxyanion hole and loss of activity. The dimerization-induced allosteric changes described here form the physical basis for the concentration-dependent activation of the protease, which is essential for proper virus replication. Small-angle X-ray scattering experiments confirmed a concentration-dependent equilibrium of monomeric and dimeric protease in solution.
Herpesviruses encode a unique serine protease, which is essential for herpesvirus capsid maturation and is therefore an interesting target for drug development. In solution, this protease exists in an equilibrium of an inactive monomeric and an active dimeric form. All currently available crystal structures of herpesvirus proteases represent complexes, particularly dimers. Here we show the first three-dimensional structure of the native monomeric form in addition to the native and the chemically inactivated dimeric form of the protease derived from the porcine herpesvirus pseudorabies virus. Comparison of the monomeric and dimeric form allows predictions on the structural changes that occur during dimerization and shed light onto the process of protease activation. These new crystal structures provide a rational base to develop drugs preventing dimerization and therefore impeding herpesvirus capsid maturation. Furthermore, it is likely that this mechanism is conserved throughout the herpesviruses.