Viruses have developed complex mechanisms for manipulating normal cellular pathways to facilitate viral replication and to evade host defence mechanisms. Recently, several studies have revealed that cellular autophagy is involved in various pathogenic infections and plays a crucial role in these processes [5, 7, 38]. During the infection process, viruses have been shown to employ the autophagic machinery to replicate and survive [39–41]. Further studies have shown that some viruses can induce autophagy by using their proteins, such as the NSP4 of rotavirus , the NS4B of hepatitis C virus , nonstructural protein p17 of avian reovirus  and matrix protein 2 of influenza A virus . Although our previous studies showed that EMCV infection can induce the autophagy process , more detailed evidence concerning the EMCV protein(s) involved in virus-induced autophagy remain unknown.
In the present study, we found that the BHK-21 cells that were co-expressing VP1, VP3, VP4, 2B, 2C, 3A or 3D and GFP-LC3 displayed a number of positive puncta in the cytoplasm and these EMCV proteins colocalized with a subset of GFP-LC3 puncta respectively (Figure 1B, 1D, 1E, 1G, 1H, 1I, and 1L), whereas the cells that were expressing other EMCV proteins (VP2, 2A and 3C), the irrelevant protein (GST) and the cell control transfected with the pCMV-HA plasmid exhibited no positive puncta (Figure 1C, 1F, 1K, 1M and 1N). In principle, the formation of GFP-LC3 puncta accumulations represents a component of the autophagy process. However, the formation of ubiquitinated GFP-LC3 positive protein accumulations may be triggered and does not completely imply either the induction of autophagy (or autophagosome formation), or autophagic flux through the system . Therefore, to rule out this possibility, we also detected the LC3 modification and autophagic vesicles by Western blotting analysis and transmission electron microscopy to analyze the activation of the autophagy process (Figure 2A-C). Western blotting analysis showed that the increased level of LC3-II, the reduced expression of p62, the enhanced ratio of LC3-IIto β-actin and the degradated ratio of p62 to β-actin represented a significant increase in the autophagy level of 2C- or 3D-overexpressed cells, whereas no similar results were shown in other viral proteins. The number of autophagosome-like vesicles with various sizes significantly increased in 2C- or 3D-overexpressing cells in comparison with the control cells by transmission electron microscopy. The size difference in autophagosome-like vesicles most likely implied that these vesicles contained different cytoplasmic contents, such as obsolete organelles and cytoplasmic proteins.
To verify that the LC3 modification phenomenon was caused by autophagic signalling instead of 2C- or 3D- induced membrane alterations, we employed a specific siRNA targeting the autophagy-critical gene required for autophagosome formation. Disrupting the class III phosphatidyl inositol 3-kinase (PI3K) signalling complex that was required for autophagosome formation by Beclin1 siRNA clearly reduced the induction level of LC3-II and the degradation of p62 in 2C- or 3D-transfected cells (Figure 2D-E), further demonstrating that EMCV 2C or 3D induced autophagy through the variation in autophagic vesicle formation. A previous study indicated that the 2BC and 3A proteins of poliovirus are responsible for inducing autophagy . Thus, we deduced that these differences in induction ability are most likely explained by the individual expression or overexpression level of various viral proteins in cells or the significant differences between nonstructural proteins encoded by different picornaviruses . Based on our findings, we primarily engaged in further research of autophagy mechanisms to focus on EMCV 2C and 3D proteins.
The endoplasmic reticulum (ER) system, which is a major site for the synthesis and control of the membrane or secreted protein quality, is a primary compartment of signal initiation and transduction for responding to a variety of stimuli, including viral infections [35, 47]. Although studies showed that many picornaviruses induce autophagy by activating ER stress [29, 30], a question remains as to whether the underlying mechanisms of EMCV and 2C or 3D protein-induced autophagy are related to ER stress. Thus, the activation of the ER stress pathway was analyzed in BHK-21 cells infected with EMCV, expressed 2C or 3D protein or treated with Tg (as a positive control) (Figure 3). The results showed that the marker molecules of the ER stress pathway were activated in these BHK-21 cells, indicating that EMCV 2C and 3D proteins are potent ER stress inducers in BHK-21 cells and play an important role in EMCV-activated ER stress. The two proteins could trigger the activation of ER stress marker molecules not only via up-regulation at the transcriptional level but also by activation at the translational level. Interestingly, we found that, ER stress was activated and accompanied by the up-regulation of the autophagy level through an enhanced conversion of LC3 in BHK-21 cells treated with Tg, and we therefore deduced that EMCV 2C or 3D protein also induce autophagy by activating the ER stress.
A number of viruses have been shown to induce ER stress during viral infection. Cells respond to ER stress by activation of the UPR pathway to maintain homeostasis of the ER. However, the pattern of molecular interactions that occurs within the UPR pathway differs. This finding depends on the viral identity and type of host cell. Many viruses clearly induce all the UPR pathways, and some viral infections activate the partial pathway [29, 30, 48]. A detailed analysis of the UPR pathway was undertaken in our study to understand this case (Figure 4). Our results showed that EMCV infection and 2C- or 3D-protein expression could phosphorylate the associated molecules of the PERK pathway and cleave the intact form of ATF6a (90 kDa), but they could not splice XBP1 mRNA, indicating that the activation of the PERK pathway and the ATF6a pathway can transiently block mostly protein translation and regulate the transcription of the ER chaperon against ER malfunction. These pathways are specifically induced to trigger autophagy initiation [49–51]. Moreover, many genes were regulated by activation of the UPR pathway at the transcriptional and translational levels and were involved in recovering from ER stress , which may be available for EMCV replication. Although the exact contributions of the host and virus to UPR induction remain unclear, we showed that EMCV 2C or 3D protein induced autophagy by initiating the PERK and ATF6a pathways in response to ER stress, which finally benefits this cellular event and viral replication.
Although the molecular mechanisms regulating autophagic signal pathways to facilitate viral survival and replication by viral proteins are required to be further explored, a growing number of studies have demonstrated that the interactions between viral proteins and the cellular proteins associated with autophagy play important roles in regulating autophagy process. Foot and mouth disease virus (FMDV) nonstructural protein 2C binds to Beclin1, a central regulator of the autophagy pathway, to prevent the fusion of lysosomes to autophagosomes, thereby allowing for viral survival . Additionally, a study showed that the HCV NS4B protein can induce autophagy and promote viral replication through recruiting the Rab5 and Vps34 complex . Thus, analyzing the interaction between viral proteins and autophagy-associated proteins of host cells is worthy for better evaluating the role of autophagy in relation to EMCV infection.