The NS2-NS3 region of the hepatitis C virus polyprotein encodes a proteolytic activity that is required for processing of the NS2/3 junction. Membrane association of NS2 and the autocatalytic nature of the NS2/3 processing event have so far constituted hurdles to the detailed investigation of this reaction. We now report the first biochemical characterization of the self-processing activity of a purified NS2/3 precursor. Using multiple sequence alignments, we were able to define a minimal domain, devoid of membrane-anchoring sequences, which was still capable of performing the processing reaction. This truncated protein was efficiently expressed and processed in Escherichia coli. The processing reaction could be significantly suppressed by growth in minimal medium in the absence of added zinc ions, leading to the accumulation of an unprocessed precursor protein in inclusion bodies. This protein was purified to homogeneity, refolded, and shown to undergo processing at the authentic NS2/NS3 cleavage site with rates comparable to those observed using an in vitro-translated full-length NS2/3 precursor. Size-exclusion chromatography and a dependence of the processing rate on the concentration of truncated NS2/3 suggested a functional multimerization of the precursor protein. However, we were unable to observe trans cleavage activity between cleavage-site mutants and active-site mutants. Furthermore, the cleavage reaction of the wild-type protein was not inhibited by addition of a mutant that was unable to undergo self-processing. Site-directed mutagenesis data and the independence of the processing rate from the nature of the added metal ion argue in favor of NS2/3 being a cysteine protease having Cys993 and His952 as a catalytic dyad. We conclude that a purified protein can efficiently reproduce processing at the NS2/3 site in the absence of additional cofactors.
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