The haemagglutinin (H) protein is the dominant envelope glycoprotein of measles virus. The protein contains 13 cysteine residues among its 617 amino acids and all are located in its ectodomain. In previous studies, the capacity of a panel of monoclonal antibodies (MAbs) to react with continuous and discontinuous epitopes was defined. It was shown that the absence of disulphide bonds impaired the capacity of the protein to react with MAbs specific for the discontinuous epitopes. In the present study, our objective was to determine the contribution of individual cysteine residues to the folding of H protein into its native conformation. Site-directed oligonucleotide mutagenesis was used to create 13 mutants, each with a serine replacing a cysteine. The mutated genes were directly expressed in the BHK-21 cells by use of a vaccinia virus-driven T7 polymerase system. Investigations of the antigenic structure and intracellular processing properties of the mutant proteins reveal the following outcome. (i) Replacements of cysteine residues 139, 154, 188, 386, 570 or 606 had no detectable effect on the antigenic structure and intracellular processing of the H protein. However, a mutant with a replaced cysteine residue 154 displayed modified migration properties. (ii) Alterations of cysteine residues 381 or 494 displayed a moderate effect on H protein properties. The two mutants expressed discontinuous epitopes, indicating that they were partially folded, but they did not oligomerize, did not reach the medial Golgi complex and failed to be transported to the cell surface. (iii) Substitutions of cysteine residues 287, 300, 394, 579 or 583 resulted in a complete loss of binding of the MAbs that recognize the discontinuous epitopes, with no effect on the binding of a MAb reacting with a continuous epitope. No dimeric form of the proteins was observed and only high mannose oligosaccharides were demonstrated in these mutants, suggesting that the modified proteins did not oligomerize and were retained in the endoplasmic reticulum. In conclusion, cysteine residues 287, 300, 381, 394, 494, 579 and 583 appear to play a particularly critical role in the antigenic structure and processing of the H molecules and they probably participate in the inter- or intramolecular disulphide bonding.


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