A Nuclear Export Signal in KHNYN Required for Its Antiviral Activity Evolved as ZAP Emerged in Tetrapods

Maria J. Lista, Mattia Ficarelli, Harry Wilson, Dorota Kmiec, Rebecca L. Youle, Joseph Wanford, Helena Winstone, Charlotte Odendall, Ian A. Taylor, Stuart J.D. Neil*, Chad M. Swanson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


The zinc finger antiviral protein (ZAP) inhibits viral replication by directly binding CpG dinucleotides in cytoplasmic viral RNA to inhibit protein synthesis and target the RNA for degradation. ZAP evolved in tetrapods and there are clear orthologs in reptiles, birds, and mammals. When ZAP emerged, other proteins may have evolved to become cofactors for its antiviral activity. KHNYN is a putative endoribonuclease that is required for ZAP to restrict retroviruses. To determine its evolutionary path after ZAP emerged, we compared KHNYN orthologs in mammals and reptiles to those in fish, which do not encode ZAP. This identified residues in KHNYN that are highly conserved in species that encode ZAP, including several in the CUBAN domain. The CUBAN domain interacts with NEDD8 and Cullin-RING E3 ubiquitin ligases. Deletion of the CUBAN domain decreased KHNYN antiviral activity, increased protein expression and increased nuclear localization. However, mutation of residues required for the CUBAN domain-NEDD8 interaction increased KHNYN abundance but did not affect its antiviral activity or cytoplasmic localization, indicating that Cullin-mediated degradation may control its homeostasis and regulation of protein turnover is separable from its antiviral activity. By contrast, the C-terminal residues in the CUBAN domain form a CRM1-dependent nuclear export signal (NES) that is required for its antiviral activity. Deletion or mutation of the NES increased KHNYN nuclear localization and decreased its interaction with ZAP. The final 2 positions of this NES are not present in fish KHNYN orthologs and we hypothesize their evolution allowed KHNYN to act as a ZAP cofactor. IMPORTANCE The interferon system is part of the innate immune response that inhibits viruses and other pathogens. This system emerged approximately 500 million years ago in early vertebrates. Since then, some genes have evolved to become antiviral interferon-stimulated genes (ISGs) while others evolved so their encoded protein could interact with proteins encoded by ISGs and contribute to their activity. However, this remains poorly characterized. ZAP is an ISG that arose during tetrapod evolution and inhibits viral replication. Because KHNYN interacts with ZAP and is required for its antiviral activity against retroviruses, we conducted an evolutionary analysis to determine how specific amino acids in KHNYN evolved after ZAP emerged. This identified a nuclear export signal that evolved in tetrapods and is required for KHNYN to traffic in the cell and interact with ZAP. Overall, specific residues in KHNYN evolved to allow it to act as a cofactor for ZAP antiviral activity.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Virology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2023


  • antiviral protein evolution
  • CpG
  • HIV
  • innate immunity
  • interferon-stimulated gene
  • N4BP1
  • PARP13
  • ZAP
  • ZC3HAV1


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