The pathway by which semliki forest virus (SFV), a membrane-containing animal virus, enters BHK-21 cells was studied morphologically and biochemically. After attaching to the cell surface, the majority of viruses was rapidly trapped into coated pits, internalized by endocytosis in coated vesicles, and sequestered into intracellular vacuoles and lysosomes. Direct penetration of viruses through the plasma membrane was never observed.
To assess the possible involvement of lysosomes in the release of the genome into the cytoplasm, the effect of five lysosomotropic agents, known to increase the lysosomal pH, was tested. All of these agents inhibited SFV infectivity and one, chloroquine (the agent studied in most detail), inhibited a very early step in the infection but had no effect on binding, endocytosis, or intracellular distribution of SFV. Thus, the inhibitory effect was concluded to be either on penetration of the nucelocapsid into the cytoplasm or on uncoating of the viral RNA.
Possible mechanisms for the penetration of the genome into the cytoplasm were studied in vitro, using phospholipids-cholesterol liposomes and isolated SFV. When the pH was 6.0 or lower, efficient fusion of the viral membranes and the liposomal membranes occurred, resulting in the transfer of the nucleocapsid into the liposomes. Infection of cells could also be induced by brief low pH treatment of cells with bound SFV under conditions where the normal infection route was blocked.
The results suggest that the penetration of the viral genome into the cytosol takes place intracellularly through fusion between the limiting membrane of intracellular vacuoles and the membrane of viruses contained within them. The low pH required for fusion together with the inhibitory effect of lysosomotropic agents implicate lysosomes, or other intracellular vacuoles with sufficiently low pH, as the main sites of penetration.