Picornavirus protease 3C is normally released from its P3 precursor by two successive self-cleavage reactions. The free enzyme can then catalyze most of the remaining processing events within the viral polyprotein. To investigate the role of the 3C precursors in the processing cascade, we constructed cDNA clones which expressed genetically altered forms of the encephalomyocarditis P3 region in vitro. Site-specific substitutions were introduced into the Gln-Gly residues at the 3B-3C and 3C-3D junctions, and the resulting proteins were tested for their ability to self-process and to catalyze cleavage of viral capsid precursors in cell-free protease assays. We determined that three P3 region precursor proteins (3ABC, 3CD, and P3), harboring inactive cleavage sites, were as active as the free enzyme (3C) in processing assays with capsid substrates. Further, we found that in addition to the naturally occurring Gln-Gly and Gln-Ser amino acid pairs, the encephalomyocarditis 3C enzyme was able to process Gln-Cys but not Gln-Thr, Gln-Ile, Gln-Tyr, Arg-Gly, or Leu-Gly combinations when these residues were substituted into normal cleavage site contexts
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