mRNAs are protected at their 5′ ends by a cap structure consisting of an N7-methylated GTP molecule linked to the first transcribed nucleotide by a 5′–5′ triphosphate bond.
The cap structure is essential for RNA splicing, export and stability, and allows the ribosomal complex to recognize mRNAs and ensure their efficient translation.
Uncapped RNA molecules are degraded in cytoplasmic granular compartments called processing bodies and may be detected as 'non-self' by the host cell, triggering antiviral innate immune responses through the production of interferons.
Conventional RNA capping (that is, of mRNAs from the host cell and from DNA viruses) requires hydrolysis of the 5′ γ-phosphate of RNA by an RNA triphosphatase, transfer of a GMP molecule onto the 5′-end of RNA by a guanylyltransferase, and methylation of this guanosine by an (guanine-N7)-methyltransferase. Subsequent methylations on the first and second transcribed nucleotides by (nucleoside-2′- O)-methyltransferases form cap-1 and cap-2 structures.
Viruses have evolved highly diverse capping mechanisms to acquire cap structures using their own or cellular capping machineries, or by stealing cap structures from cellular mRNAs.
Virally encoded RNA-capping machineries are diverse in terms of their genetic components, protein domain organization, enzyme structures, and reaction mechanisms and pathways, making viral RNA capping an attractive target for antiviral-drug design.
Capping the 5′ end of eukaryotic mRNAs with a 7-methylguanosine moiety enables efficient splicing, nuclear export and translation of mRNAs, and also limits their degradation by cellular exonucleases. Here, Canard and colleagues describe how viruses synthesize their own mRNA cap structures or steal them from host mRNAs, allowing efficient synthesis of viral proteins and avoidance of host innate immune responses.
In the eukaryotic cell, capping of mRNA 5′ ends is an essential structural modification that allows efficient mRNA translation, directs pre-mRNA splicing and mRNA export from the nucleus, limits mRNA degradation by cellular 5′–3′ exonucleases and allows recognition of foreign RNAs (including viral transcripts) as 'non-self'. However, viruses have evolved mechanisms to protect their RNA 5′ ends with either a covalently attached peptide or a cap moiety (7-methyl-Gppp, in which p is a phosphate group) that is indistinguishable from cellular mRNA cap structures. Viral RNA caps can be stolen from cellular mRNAs or synthesized using either a host- or virus-encoded capping apparatus, and these capping assemblies exhibit a wide diversity in organization, structure and mechanism. Here, we review the strategies used by viruses of eukaryotic cells to produce functional mRNA 5′-caps and escape innate immunity.