To initiate infection, enveloped viruses must fuse with a cell membrane, a process mediated by a dedicated viral fusion protein. To date, these proteins group into three basic structural classes. Most require priming (via a protease) to prepare them to respond to a fusion-triggering signal. Known fusion triggers include receptors, low pH and proteases (and combinations thereof). Here, we provide an update on viral fusion protein priming and triggering, with a focus on virus fusion in endosomes.
Ari Helenius launched the field of enveloped virus fusion in endosomes with a seminal paper in the Journal of Cell Biology in 1980. In the intervening years, a great deal has been learned about the structures and mechanisms of viral membrane fusion proteins as well as about the endosomes in which different enveloped viruses fuse and the endosomal cues that trigger fusion. We now recognize three classes of viral membrane fusion proteins based on structural criteria and four mechanisms of fusion triggering. After reviewing general features of viral membrane fusion proteins and viral fusion in endosomes, we delve into three characterized mechanisms for viral fusion triggering in endosomes: by low pH, by receptor binding plus low pH and by receptor binding plus the action of a protease. We end with a discussion of viruses that may employ novel endosomal fusion-triggering mechanisms. A key take-home message is that enveloped viruses that enter cells by fusing in endosomes traverse the endocytic pathway until they reach an endosome that has all of the environmental conditions (pH, proteases, ions, intracellular receptors and lipid composition) to (if needed) prime and (in all cases) trigger the fusion protein and to support membrane fusion.