Ebola virus (EBOV) makes extensive and intricate use of host factors in the cellular endosomal/lysosomal pathway to release its genome into the cytoplasm and initiate infection. Following viral internalization into endosomes, host cysteine proteases cleave the EBOV fusion glycoprotein (GP) to unmask the binding site for its intracellular receptor, the cholesterol transporter Niemann-Pick C1 (NPC1). GP-NPC1 interaction is required for viral entry. Despite these and other recent discoveries, late events in EBOV entry following GP-NPC1 binding and culminating in GP-catalyzed fusion between viral and cellular lipid bilayers remain enigmatic. A mechanistic understanding of EBOV membrane fusion has been hampered by the failure of previous efforts to reconstitute fusion in vitro or at the cell surface. This report describes an assay to monitor initial steps directly in EBOV membrane fusion—triggering of GP and virus-cell lipid mixing—by single virions in live cells. Fusogenic triggering of GP occurs predominantly in Rab7-positive (Rab7+) endosomes, absolutely requires interaction between proteolytically primed GP and NPC1, and is blocked by key GP-specific neutralizing antibodies with therapeutic potential. Unexpectedly, cysteine protease inhibitors do not inhibit lipid mixing by virions bearing precleaved GP, even though they completely block cytoplasmic entry by these viruses, as shown previously. These results point to distinct cellular requirements for different steps in EBOV membrane fusion and suggest a model in which host cysteine proteases are dispensable for GP fusion triggering after NPC1 binding but are required for the formation of fusion pores that permit genome delivery. IMPORTANCE Ebola virus (EBOV) causes outbreaks of highly lethal disease for which no approved vaccines or treatments exist. Recent work has elucidated key molecular features of the complex EBOV entry process, including stepwise interactions with multiple host factors. However, there is a critical gap in our understanding of events that surround the final membrane fusion step which persists due to the paucity of direct and extensive investigation of EBOV fusion. Here, we report a real-time assay for EBOV glycoprotein fusion triggering and use it to define its cellular location and requirements. We also uncover an unexpected requirement for host proteases at a step after fusion triggering that may reflect their role in formation of fusion pores for genome delivery.
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