Departamento de Biología Molecular y Celular; Centro Nacional de Biotecnología-CSIC-Madrid (Spain).
Hepatitis C virus genome replication is thought to occur in a membranous cellular compartment derived from the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). The molecular mechanisms by which these membrane-associated replication complexes are formed during HCV infection are only starting to be unraveled and both viral and cellular factors contribute to their formation. In this study, we describe the discovery of non-opioid sigma-1 receptor (S1R) as a cellular factor that mediates early steps of viral RNA replication. S1R is a cholesterol-binding protein that resides in lipid-rich areas of the ER and in mitochondria-associated ER membranes (MAMs). Several functions have been ascribed to this ER-resident chaperone, many of which are related to Ca2+ signaling at the MAMs and lipid storage and trafficking. Downregulation of S1R expression by RNAi in Huh-7 cells leads to a proportional decrease in susceptibility to HCV infection, as shown by reduced HCV RNA accumulation and intra- and extracellular infectivity in single cycle infection experiments. Similar RNAi studies in persistently infected cells indicate that S1R-expression is not rate-limiting for persistent HCV RNA replication, as marked reduction in S1R in these cells does not lead to any decrease in HCV RNA or viral protein expression. However, subgenomic replicon transfection experiments indicate that S1R expression is rate-limiting for HCV RNA replication, without impairing primary translation. Overall, our data indicate that initial steps of HCV infection are regulated by S1R, a key component of MAMs, suggesting that these structures could serve as platforms for initial RNA replication during HCV infection.