The fusion activity of flaviviruses [tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) virus and Japanese encephalitis virus] was assessed by inducing fusion from without of C6/36 mosquito cells with purified virus preparations. Membrane fusion and polykaryocyte formation was observed only after incubating the viruses at acidic pH. Two groups of monoclonal antibodies reacting with distinct non-overlapping antigenic domains on the TBE virus protein E inhibited fusion from without. One of these domains contains the most highly conserved and putative fusion-active sequence of the flavivirus protein E. Of five TBE virus monoclonal antibody escape mutants, each defined by a single amino acid substitution in the envelope protein E, one revealed a reduced fusion activity and another one a lower pH threshold. TBE virus grown in the presence of ammonium chloride as well as Langat virus purified from the supernatant of infected chick embryo cells contained the precursor of protein M (prM) rather than M itself. These ‘immature’ virions did not cause fusion from without, suggesting that the proteolytic processing of prM may be necessary for the generation of fusion-competent virions.


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