The protonation of histidine in acidic environments underpins its role in regulating the function of pH-sensitive proteins. For pH-sensitive viral fusion proteins, histidine protonation in the endosome leads to the activation of their membrane fusion function. The HCV (hepatitis C virus) glycoprotein E1–E2 heterodimer mediates membrane fusion within the endosome, but the roles of conserved histidine residues in the formation of a functional heterodimer and in sensing pH changes is unknown. We examined the functional roles of conserved histidine residues located within E1 and E2. The E1 mutations, H222A/R, H298R and H352A, disrupted E1–E2 heterodimerization and reduced virus entry. A total of five out of six histidine residues located within the E2 RBD (receptor-binding domain) were important for the E2 fold, and their substitution with arginine or alanine caused aberrant heterodimerization and/or CD81 binding. Distinct roles in E1–E2 heterodimerization and in virus entry were identified for His691 and His693 respectively within the membrane-proximal stem region. Viral entry and cell–cell fusion at neutral and low pH values were enhanced with H445R, indicating that the protonation state of His445 is a key regulator of HCV fusion. However, H445R did not overcome the block to virus entry induced by bafilomycin A1, indicating a requirement for an endosomal activation trigger in addition to acidic pH.

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