Semliki Forest virus (SFV) and many other enveloped animal viruses enter cells by a membrane fusion reaction triggered by the low pH within the endocytic pathway. In vitro, SFV fusion requires cholesterol in the target membrane, but the role of cholesterol in vivo is unknown. In this paper, the infection pathway of SFV was studied in mammalian and inset cells substantially depleted of sterol. Cholesterol-depleted cells were unaltered in their ability to bind, internalize, and acidify virus, but were blocked in SFV fusion and subsequent virus replication. Depleted cells could be infected by the cholesterol-independent vesicular stomatitis virus, which also enters cells via endocytosis and low pH-mediated fusion. The block in SFV infection was specifically reversed by cholesterol but not by cholestenone, which lacks the critical 3 beta-hydroxyl group. Cholesterol thus is central in the infection pathway of SFV, and may act in vivo to modulate infection by SFV and other pathogens.

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