The E1 membrane protein of rubella virus (RuV) is a class II membrane fusion protein structurally related to the fusion proteins of the alphaviruses, flaviviruses, and phleboviruses. Virus entry is mediated by a low pH-dependent fusion reaction through E1's insertion into the cell membrane and refolding to a stable homotrimer. Unlike the other described class II proteins, RuV E1 contains 2 fusion loops, which complex a metal ion between them by interactions with residues N88 and D136. Insertion of the E1 protein into the target membrane, fusion, and infection require calcium and are blocked by alanine substitution of N88 or D136. Here we addressed the requirements of E1 for calcium binding and the intracellular location of the calcium requirement during virus entry. Our results demonstrated that N88 and D136 are optimally configured to support RuV fusion and are strongly selected for during the virus life cycle. While E1 has some similarities with cellular proteins that bind calcium and anionic lipids, RuV binding to the membrane was independent of anionic lipids. Virus fusion occurred within early endosomes, and chelation of intracellular calcium showed that calcium within the early endosome was required for virus fusion and infection. Calcium triggered the reversible insertion of E1 into the target membrane at neutral pH, but E1 homotrimer formation and fusion required a low pH. Thus, RuV E1, unlike other known class II fusion proteins, has distinct triggers for membrane insertion and fusion protein refolding mediated, respectively, by endosomal calcium and low pH.
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