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Human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in infants and elderly worldwide; however there is no licensed RSV vaccine or effective drug treatment available. The RSV Matrix (M) protein plays key roles in virus assembly and budding, but the protein interactions that govern budding of infectious virus are not known. In this study we focus on M protein and identify a key phosphorylation site (Thr205) in M that is critical for RSV infectious virus production. Recombinant virus with a nonphosphorylatable Alanine (Ala) residue at the site was markedly attenuated, whereas virus with a phosphomimetic Aspartate (Asp) resulted in a non-viable virus which could only be recovered with an additional mutation in M (Serine to Asparagine at position 220), strongly implying that Thr205 is critical for viral infectivity. Experiments in vitro showed that mutation of Thr205 does not affect M stability or the ability to form dimers, but implicate an effect on higher order oligomer assembly. In transfected and infected cells, Asp substitution of Thr205 appeared to impair M oligomerization; typical filamentous structures still formed at the plasma membrane, but M assembly during the ensuing elongation process seemed to be impaired, resulting in shorter and more branched filaments as observed using EM. Our data thus imply for the first time that M oligomerization, regulated by negative charge at Thr205, may be critical to production of infectious RSV. IMPORTANCE: We show here for the first time that RSV M s role in virus assembly/release is strongly dependent on threonine (Thr205), a consensus site for CK2, which appears to play a key regulatory role in modulating M oligomerization and association with virus filaments. Our analysis indicates that T205 mutations do not impair M dimerization or virus-like filament formation per se, but rather the ability of M to assemble in ordered fashion on the viral filaments themselves. This appears to impact in turn upon the infectivity of released virus, rather than on virus production or release itself. Thus, M oligomerization would appear to be a target of interest for the development of anti-RSV agents; further, the recombinant T205-substituted mutant viruses described here would appear to be the first RSV mutants affected in viral maturation to our knowledge, and hence of considerable interest for vaccine approaches in the future.
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