Members of the family Coronaviridae have the largest genomes of all RNA viruses, typically in the region of 30 kilobases. Several coronaviruses, such as Severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus (MERS-CoV), are of medical importance, with high mortality rates and, in the case of SARS-CoV, significant pandemic potential. Other coronaviruses, such as Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus and Avian coronavirus, are important livestock pathogens. Ribosome profiling is a technique which exploits the capacity of the translating ribosome to protect around 30 nucleotides of mRNA from ribonuclease digestion. Ribosome-protected mRNA fragments are purified, subjected to deep sequencing and mapped back to the transcriptome to give a global “snap-shot” of translation. Parallel RNA sequencing allows normalization by transcript abundance. Here we apply ribosome profiling to cells infected with Murine coronavirus, mouse hepatitis virus, strain A59 (MHV-A59), a model coronavirus in the same genus as SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV. The data obtained allowed us to study the kinetics of virus transcription and translation with exquisite precision. We studied the timecourse of positive and negative-sense genomic and subgenomic viral RNA production and the relative translation efficiencies of the different virus ORFs. Virus mRNAs were not found to be translated more efficiently than host mRNAs; rather, virus translation dominates host translation at later time points due to high levels of virus transcripts. Triplet phasing of the profiling data allowed precise determination of translated reading frames and revealed several translated short open reading frames upstream of, or embedded within, known virus protein-coding regions. Ribosome pause sites were identified in the virus replicase polyprotein pp1a ORF and investigated experimentally. Contrary to expectations, ribosomes were not found to pause at the ribosomal frameshift site. To our knowledge this is the first application of ribosome profiling to an RNA virus.
Ribosome profiling is emerging as a powerful technique to monitor translation in living cells at sub-codon resolution. It has particular applicability to virology, with the capacity to identify viral mRNAs that are being translated during infection and to provide new insights into virus gene expression, regulation and host-virus interactions. In this work, we carried out the first ribosome profiling analysis of an RNA virus, using as a model system the murine coronavirus strain MHV-A59, a betacoronavirus in the same genus as the medically important SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV. Parallel ribosome profiling and RNA sequencing of infected-cell time points was performed during the course of MHV replication in mouse tissue culture cells and used to determine virus gene expression kinetics and the relative translational efficiencies of virus and host mRNAs. The sensitivity and precision of the approach permitted us to uncover several unanticipated features of coronavirus translation, giving insights into ribosomal frameshifting, ribosome pausing, and the utilisation of short, potentially regulatory, upstream open reading frames. We also identified some challenges associated with the technique that are of general relevance to the ribosome profiling technique and developed bioinformatic strategies to address these.