Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is an infectious disease caused by the human coronavirus, SARS-CoV. The main viral protease, SARS 3CL pro, is a validated target for the development of antiviral therapies. Since the enzyme is a homodimer and the individual monomers are inactive, two approaches are being used to develop inhibitors: enzyme activity inhibitors that target the active site and dimerization inhibitors. Dimerization inhibitors are usually targeted to the dimerization interface and need to compete with the attractive forces between subunits to be effective. In this paper, we show that the dimerization of SARS 3CLpro is also under allosteric control and that additional and energetically more favorable target sites away from the dimerization interface may also lead to subunit dissociation. We previously identified a cluster of conserved serine residues (Ser139, Ser144, and Ser147) located adjacent to the active site of 3CL pro that could effectively be targeted to inactivate the protease [Bacha, U et al. (2004) Biochemistry 43, 4906-4912]. Mutation of any of these serine residues to alanine had a debilitating effect on the catalytic activity of 3CLpro. In particular, the mutation of Ser147, which does not make any contact with the opposing subunit and is located approximately 9 A away from the dimer interface, totally inhibited dimerization and resulted in a complete loss of enzymatic activity. The finding that residues away from the dimer interface are able to control dimerization defines alternative targets for the design of dimerization inhibitors.
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