Ribonucleoprotein (RNP) cores extracted from virions of wild-type (Edmonston strain) measles virus (MV) or obtained from MV-infected cells (cRNP) were shown to be capable of transcribing RNA in vitro but at relatively low efficiency. The tightly bound matrix (M) protein could be effectively removed from virion RNP (vRNP) and from cRNP by exposure to buffers of high ionic strength (0.5 to 1.0 M KCl) but only at pH 8.0 or higher. The vRNP and cRNP cores complexed with M protein exhibited markedly reduced transcriptional activity at increasing concentrations, whereas vRNP and cRNP cores free of M protein exhibited linear and substantially higher transcriptional activity; these data suggest that M protein is the endogenous inhibitor of MV RNP transcription. M-gene cDNA clones derived from three strains of wild-type (wt) MV and 10 clones from mRNAs isolated from the brain tissue of patients who had died from subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) and from measles inclusion body encephalitis (MIBE) were recloned in the pTM-1 expression vector driven by the bacteriophage T7 RNA polymerase expressed by a coinfecting vaccinia virus recombinant. All 10 mutant SSPE and MIBE clones expressed in vitro and in vivo M proteins that reacted with monospecific anti-M polyclonal antibody and migrated on polyacrylamide gels to positions identical to or only slightly different from those of the M proteins expressed by wt MV clones. When reconstituted with cRNP cores, the three expressed wt M proteins and 6 of the 10 mutant-expressed M proteins showed equivalent capacity to down-regulate MV transcription. Three of the M proteins from SSPE clones and one from the MIBE clone showed little or no capacity to down-regulate transcription when reconstituted with cRNP cores. The only plausible explanations for loss of transcription inhibition activity by the four SSPE/MIBE M proteins were exceedingly high degrees of hypermutations leading to U-->C transitions and cloning-corrected mutations in the initiator codon (ATG-->ACG) of the four M genes. However, only the hypermutated M protein expressed by the MIBE cDNA clone exhibited virtually no capacity to bind cRNP cores in a reconstitution assay. These experiments provide some preliminary data to support the hypothesis that MV encephalitis may result from certain selective mutations in the M gene
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