Several mutations were introduced into an infectious poliovirus cDNA clone by inserting different oligodeoxynucleotide linkers into preexisting DNA restriction endonuclease sites in the viral cDNA. Ten mutated DNAs were constructed whose lesions mapped in the 5' noncoding region or in the capsid coding region of the viral genome. Eight of these mutated cDNAs did not give rise to infectious virus upon transfection into human cells, one yielded virus with a wild-type phenotype, and one gave rise to a viral mutant with a small-plaque phenotype. This last mutant, designated 1-5NC-S21, bears a 6-nucleotide insertion in the loop of a stable RNA hairpin at the very 5' end of the viral genome. Detailed analysis of the biological properties of 1-5NC-S21 showed that the primary defect in mutant-infected cells is a fivefold decrease in translation relative to wild-type-infected cells. Transfection into HeLa cells of in vitro-synthesized RNA molecules bearing either the 5' noncoding region of 1-5NC-S21 or wild-type poliovirus upstream of a luciferase reporter gene showed that the mutated RNA hairpin was responsible for the observed decrease in viral translation in mutant-infected cells and conferred this defect to heterologous RNAs. These findings indicate that an RNA hairpin located at the extreme 5' end of the viral RNA and highly conserved among enteroviruses and rhinoviruses profoundly affects the translation efficiency of poliovirus RNA in infected cells
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