Human cytomegalovirus encodes two glycoproteins, US2 and US11, which cause rapid degradation of MHC class I molecules, thus preventing recognition of virus-infected cells by the immune system. This degradation process involves retrograde transport or ‘dislocation’ of MHC class I molecules from the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) to the cytosol, where they are deglycosylated by an N-glycanase and degraded by the proteasome. At present it is unknown whether ubiquitination is required for US2- and US11-mediated dislocation and degradation of MHC class I molecules. Here, we show that in E36ts20 hamster cells, which contain a temperature-sensitive mutation in the E1 ubiquitin-activating enzyme, US11-mediated degradation of MHC class I molecules is strongly impaired at the non-permissive temperature, indicating the necessity for ubiquitination in this process. We next addressed the question of whether ubiquitination is a condition for the retrograde movement of MHC class I molecules from the ER to the cytosol, or whether ubiquitination is merely required for recognition of dislocated MHC class I molecules by the proteasome. In the absence of a functional ubiquitin system, complexes of US11 and MHC class I molecules accumulate in the ER. In this state the membrane topology of MHC class I molecules does not significantly change, as judged from proteinase K digestions. Thus the results indicate that a functional ubiquitin system is essential for dislocation of MHC class I molecules from the ER to the cytosol.

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