When BHK-21 cells with Semliki Forest virus (SFV) bound at the plasma membrane are briefly treated with low pH medium (pH 5-6), fusion between the viral membrane and the plasma membrane occurs, releasing the viral nucleocapsid into the cytoplasm. The fusion reaction resembles that described previously for Sendai virus but with one fundamental difference; it is strictly dependent on low pH. The fusion reaction is highly efficient. Up to 86% of bound viruses fuse, and 6 X 10(6) virus spike proteins can be inserted into the plasma membrane of each cell. The process is very rapid (full activity is observed after 5 s) and it occurs over a wide temperature range and equally well with all five cell lines tested (BHK-21, HeLa B, HeLa suspension, Raji, and 3T3). Low pH-induced fusion of the virus at the plasma membrane can lead to infection of susceptible cells. The artificial nature of this infection pathway is, however, demonstrated by the facts that infection through the plasma membrane occurs only at subphysiological pH and that it is insensitive to inhibitors of the normal entry route. Nevertheless, these results indicate that low pH membrane fusion introduces the viral genome into the cytoplasm in a form suitable for replication.

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