Poxviruses encode many proteins that enable them to evade host anti-viral defense mechanisms. Spi-2 proteins, including Cowpox virus CrmA, suppress anti-viral immune responses and contribute to poxviral pathogenesis and lethality. These proteins are ‘serpin’ protease inhibitors, which function via a pseudosubstrate mechanism involving initial interactions between the protease and a cleavage site within the serpin. A conformational change within the serpin interrupts the cleavage reaction, deforming the protease active site and preventing dissociation. Spi-2 proteins like CrmA potently inhibit caspases-1, -4 and -5, which produce proinflammatory cytokines, and caspase-8, which facilitates cytotoxic lymphocyte-mediated target cell death. It is not clear whether both of these functions are equally perilous for the virus, or whether only one must be suppressed for poxviral infectivity and spread but the other is coincidently inhibited merely because these caspases are biochemically similar. We compared the caspase specificity of CrmA to three orthologs from orthopoxviruses and four from more distant chordopoxviruses. All potently blocked caspases-1, -4, -5 and -8 activity but exhibited negligible inhibition of caspases-2, -3 and -6. The orthologs differed markedly in their propensity to inhibit non-mammalian caspases. We determined the specificity of CrmA mutants bearing various residues in positions P4, P3 and P2 of the cleavage site. Almost all variants retained the ability to inhibit caspase-1, but many lacked caspase-8 inhibitory activity. The retention of Spi-2 proteins’ caspase-8 specificity during chordopoxvirus evolution, despite this function being readily lost through cleavage site mutagenesis, suggests that caspase-8 inhibition is crucial for poxviral pathogenesis and spread.

You do not currently have access to this content.