Proteolytic cleavage and inactivation of the TRMT1 tRNA modification enzyme by SARS-CoV-2 main protease

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    eLife assessment

    This manuscript provides important insights into the degradation of a host tRNA modification enzyme TRMT1 by SARS-CoV-2 protease nsp5. The data convincingly support the main conclusions of the paper. These results will be of interest to virologists interested in studying the alterations in tRNA modifications, host methyltransferases, and viral infections.

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Nonstructural protein 5 (Nsp5) is the main protease of SARS-CoV-2 that cleaves viral polyproteins into individual polypeptides necessary for viral replication. Here, we show that Nsp5 binds and cleaves human tRNA methyltransferase 1 (TRMT1), a host enzyme required for a prevalent post-transcriptional modification in tRNAs. Human cells infected with SARS-CoV-2 exhibit a decrease in TRMT1 protein levels and TRMT1-catalyzed tRNA modifications, consistent with TRMT1 cleavage and inactivation by Nsp5. Nsp5 cleaves TRMT1 at a specific position that matches the consensus sequence of SARS-CoV-2 polyprotein cleavage sites, and a single mutation within the sequence inhibits Nsp5-dependent proteolysis of TRMT1. The TRMT1 cleavage fragments exhibit altered RNA binding activity and are unable to rescue tRNA modification in TRMT1-deficient human cells. Compared to wildtype human cells, TRMT1-deficient human cells infected with SARS-CoV-2 exhibit reduced levels of intracellular viral RNA. These findings provide evidence that Nsp5-dependent cleavage of TRMT1 and perturbation of tRNA modification patterns contribute to the cellular pathogenesis of SARS-CoV-2 infection.

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  1. eLife assessment

    This manuscript provides important insights into the degradation of a host tRNA modification enzyme TRMT1 by SARS-CoV-2 protease nsp5. The data convincingly support the main conclusions of the paper. These results will be of interest to virologists interested in studying the alterations in tRNA modifications, host methyltransferases, and viral infections.

  2. Reviewer #1 (Public Review):

    Zhang et al. investigate the hypothesis that tRNA methyl transferase 1 (TRMT1) is cleaved by NSP5 (nonstructural protein 5 or MPro), the SARS-CoV-2 main protease, during SARS-CoV-2 infection. They provide solid evidence that TRMT1 is a substrate of Nsp5, revealing an Nsp5 target consensus sequence and evidence of TRMT1 cleavage in cells. Their conclusions are exceptionally strong given the co-submission by D'Oliveira et al showing cleavage of TRMT1 in vitro by Nsp5. Separately, the authors convincingly demonstrate widespread downregulation of RNA modifications during CoV-2 infection, including a requirement for TRMT1 in efficient viral replication. This finding is congruent with the authors' previous work defining the impact of TRMT1 and m2,2g on global translation, which is most likely necessary to support infection and virion production. What still remains unclear is the functional relevance of TRMT1 cleavage by Nsp5 during infection. Based on the data provided here, TRMT1 cleavage may be an act by CoV-2 to self-limit replication, as the expression of a non-cleavable TRMT1 (versus wild-type TRMT1) supports enhanced viral RNA expression at certain MOIs. Theoretically, TRMT1 cleavage should inactivate the modification activity of TRMT1, which the authors thoroughly and elegantly investigate with rigorous biochemical assays. However, only a minority of TRMT1 undergoes cleavage during infection in this study and thus whether TRMT1 cleavage serves an important functional role during CoV-2 replication will be an important topic for future work. The authors fairly assess their work in this regard. This study pushes forward the idea that control of tRNA expression and functionality is an important and understudied area of host-pathogen interaction.

    Weaknesses noted:
    The detection of the N-terminal TRMT1 fragment by western blot is not robust. The polyclonal antibody used to detect TRMT1 in this work cross-reacts with a non-specific protein product. Unfortunately, this obstructs the visualization of the predicted N-terminal TRMT1 fragment. It is unclear how the authors were able to perform densitometry, given the interference of the non-specific band. Additionally, the replicates in the source data make it clear that the appearance of the N-terminal fragment "wisp" under the non-specific band is not seen in every replicate. Though the disappearance of this wisp with mutant Nsp5 and uncleavable TRMT1 is reassuring, the detection of the N-terminal fragment with the TRMT1 antibody should be assessed critically. Considering this group has strong research interests in TRMT1, I assume that attempts to make other antibodies have proved unfruitful. Additionally, N-terminal tagging of TRMT1 is predicted to disrupt the mitochondrial targeting signal, eliminating the potential for using alternative antibodies to see the N-terminal fragment. These technical issues reiterate the fact that the functional significance of TRMT1 cleavage during CoV-2 infection remains unclear. However, this study demonstrates an important finding that the tRNA modification landscape is altered during CoV-2 infection and that TRMT1 is an important host factor supporting CoV-2 replication.

  3. Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

    The manuscript titled 'Proteolytic cleavage and inactivation of the TRMT1 tRNA modification enzyme by SARS-CoV-2 main protease' from K. Zhang et al. demonstrates that several RNA modifications are downregulated during SARS-CoV-2 infection including the widespread m2,2G methylation, which potentially contributes to changes in host translation. To understand the molecular basis behind this global hypomodification of RNA during infection, the authors focused on the human methyltransferase TRMT1 that catalyzes the m2,2G modification. They reveal that TRMT1 not only interacts with the main SARS-CoV-2 protease (Nsp5) in human cells but is also cleaved by Nsp5. To establish if TRMT1 cleavage by Nsp5 contributes to the reduction in m2,2G levels, the authors show compelling evidence that the TRMT1 fragments are incapable of methylating the RNA substrates due to loss of RNA binding by the catalytic domain. They further determine that expression of full-length TRMT1 is required for optimal SARS-CoV-2 replication in 293T cells. Nevertheless, the cleavage of TRMT1 was dispensable for SARS-CoV-2 replication hinting at the possibility that TRMT1 could be an off-target or fortuitous substrate of Nsp5. Overall, this study will be of interest to virologists and biologists studying the role of RNA modification and RNA modifying enzymes in viral infection.

    • The authors use a state-of-the-art mass spectrometry approach to quantify RNA modifications in human cells infected with SARS-CoV-2.
    • The authors go to great length to demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 main protease, Nsp5, interacts, and cleaves TRMT1 in cells and perform important controls when needed. They use a series of overexpression with strategically placed tags on both TRMT1 and Nsp5 to strengthen their observations.
    • The use of an inactive Nsp5 mutant (C145A) strongly supports the claim of the authors that Nsp5 is solely responsible for TRMT1 cleavage in cells.
    • Although the direct cleavage was not experimentally determined, the authors convincingly show that TRMT1 Q530N is not cleaved by Nsp5 suggesting that the predicted cleavage site at this position is most likely the bona fide region processed by Nsp5 in cells.
    • To understand the impact of TRMT1 cleavage on its RNA methylation activity, the authors rigorously test four protein constructs for their capacity not only to bind RNA but also to introduce the m2,2G modification. They demonstrate that the fragments resulting from TRMT1 cleavage are inactive and cannot methylate RNA. They further establish that the C-terminal region of TRMT1 (containing a zinc-finger domain) is the main binding site for RNA.
    • While 293T cells are unlikely an ideal model system to study SARS-CoV-2 infection, the authors use two cell lines and well-designed rescue experiments to uncover that TRMT1 is required for optimal SARS-CoV-2 replication.

    • Immunoblotting is extensively used to probe for TRMT1 degradation by Nsp5 in this study. Regretfully, the polyclonal antibody used by the authors shows strong non-specific binding to other epitopes. This complicates the data interpretation and quantification since the cleaved TRMT1 band migrates very closely to a main non-specific band detected by the antibody (for instance Fig 3A). While this reviewer is concerned about the cross-contamination during quantification of the N-TRMT1, the loss of this faint cleaved band with the TRMT1 Q530N mutant is reassuring. Nevertheless, the poor behavior of this antibody for TRMT1 detection was already reported and the authors should have taken better precautions or designed a different strategy to circumvent the limitation of this antibody by relying on additional tags.

    • While 293T cells are convenient to use, it is not a well-suited model system to study SARS-CoV-2 infection and replication. Therefore, some of the conclusions from this study might not apply to better-suited cell systems such as Vero E6 cells or might not be observed in patient-infected cells.

    • The reduction of bulk TRMT1 levels is minor during infection of MRC5 cells with SARS-CoV-2 (Fig 1). This does not seem to agree with the more dramatic reduction in m2,2G modification levels. Cellular Localization experiments of TRMT1 would help clarify this. While TRMT1 is found in the cytoplasm and nucleus, it is possible that TRMT1 is more dramatically degraded in the cytoplasm due to easier access by Nsp5.

    • In Fig 6, the authors show that TRMT1 is required for optimal SARS-CoV-2 replication. This can be rescued by expressing TRMT1 (Fig 7). Nevertheless, it is unknown if the methylation activity of TRMT1 is required. The authors could have expressed an inactive TRMT1 mutant (by disrupting the SAM binding site) to establish if the RNA modification by TRMT1 is important for SARS-CoV-2 replication or if it is the protein backbone that might contribute to other processes.

    • Fig 7, the authors used the Q530N variant to rescue SARS-CoV-2 replication in TRMT1 KO cells. This is an important experiment and unexpectedly reveals that TRMT1 cleavage by Nsp5 is not required for viral replication. To strengthen the claim of the authors that TRMT1 is required to promote viral replication and that its cleavage inhibits RNA methylation, the authors could express the TRMT1 N-terminal construct in the TRMT1 KO cells to assess if viral replication is restored or not to similar levels as WT TRMT1. This will further validate the potential biological importance of TRMT1 cleavage by Nsp5.

    • Fig 7 shows that the TRMT1 Q530N variant rescues SARS-CoV-2 replication to greater levels then WT TRMT1. The authors should discuss this in greater detail and its possible implications with their proposed statement. For instance, are m2,2G levels higher in Q530N compared to WT? Does Q530N co-elute with Nsp5 or is the interaction disrupted in cells?

  4. Reviewer #3 (Public Review):

    In this manuscript, the authors have used biochemical approaches to provide compelling evidence for the cleavage of TRMT1 by SARS-CoV-2 Nsp5 protease. This work is of wide interest to biochemists, cell biologists, and structural biologists in the coronavirus (CoV) field. Furthermore, it substantially advances the understanding of how CoV's interact with host factors during infection and modify cellular metabolism.

    The authors provide multiple lines of biochemical evidence to report a TRMT1-Nsp5 interaction during SARS-CoV-2 infection. They show that the host enzyme TRMT1 is cleaved at a specific site and that it generates fragments that are incapable of functioning properly. This is an important result because TRMT1 is a critical player in host protein synthesis. This also advances our understanding of virus-host interactions during SARS-CoV-2 infections.

    The major weakness is the lack of mechanistic insights into TRMT1-Nsp5 interactions. The authors have provided commendable biochemical data on proving the TRMT1-Nsp5 interaction but without clear mechanistic insights into when this interaction takes place in the context of SARS-CoV-2 propagation, what are the functional consequences of this interaction on host biology, and does this somehow benefit the infecting virus? I feel that the authors played it a bit safe despite having access to several reagents and an extremely promising research direction.