The nonstructural protein (NSs) of severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome phlebovirus (SFTSV) sequesters TANK-binding kinase 1 (TBK1) into NSs-induced cytoplasmic structures to inhibit the phosphorylation and nuclear translocation of interferon (IFN) regulatory factor 3 (IRF3) and subsequent interferon beta (IFN-) production. Although the C-terminal region of SFTSV NSs (NSs66–249) has been linked to the formation of NSs-induced cytoplasmic structures and inhibition of host IFN- responses, the role of the N-terminal region in antagonizing host antiviral responses remains to be defined. Here, we demonstrate that two conserved amino acids at positions 21 and 23 in the SFTSV and heartland virus (HRTV) NSs are essential for suppression of IRF3 phosphorylation and IFN- mRNA expression following infection with SFTSV or recombinant influenza virus lacking the NS1 gene. Surprisingly, formation of SFTSV/HRTV NSs-induced cytoplasmic structures is not essential for inhibition of host antiviral responses. Rather, an association between SFTSV/HRTV NSs and TBK1 is required for suppression of mitochondrial antiviral signaling protein (MAVS)-mediated activation of IFN- promoter activity. Although SFTSV NSs did not prevent the ubiquitination of TBK1, it associates with TBK1 through its N-terminal kinase domain (residues 1 to 307) to block the autophosphorylation of TBK1. Furthermore, we found that both wild-type NSs and the 21/23A mutant (NSs in which residues at positions 21 and 23 were replaced with alanine) of SFTSV suppressed NLRP3 inflammasome-dependent interleukin-1 (IL-1) secretion, suggesting that the importance of these residues is restricted to TBK1-dependent IFN signaling. Together, our findings strongly implicate the two conserved amino acids at positions 21 and 23 of SFTSV/HRTV NSs in the inhibition of host interferon responses. IMPORTANCE Recognition of viruses by host innate immune systems plays a critical role not only in providing resistance to viral infection but also in the initiation of antigen-specific adaptive immune responses against viruses. Severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome (SFTS) is a newly emerging infectious disease caused by the SFTS phlebovirus (SFTSV), a highly pathogenic tick-borne phlebovirus. The 294-amino-acid nonstructural protein (NSs) of SFTSV associates with TANK-binding kinase 1 (TBK1), a key regulator of host innate antiviral immunity, to inhibit interferon beta (IFN-) production and enhance viral replication. Here, we demonstrate that two conserved amino acids at positions 21 and 23 in the NSs of SFTSV and heartland virus, another tick-borne phlebovirus, are essential for association with TBK1 and suppression of IFN- production. Our results provide important insight into the molecular mechanisms by which SFTSV NSs helps to counteract host antiviral strategies.
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