Systemic symptoms induced on Nicotiana tabacum cv. Xanthi by Tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) are modulated by one or both amino-coterminal viral 126- and 183-kDa proteins: proteins involved in virus replication and cell-to-cell movement. Here we compare the systemic accumulation and gene silencing characteristics of TMV strains and mutants that express altered 126- and 183-kDa proteins and induce varying intensities of systemic symptoms on N. tabacum. Through grafting experiments, it was determined that MIC1,3, a mutant of the masked strain of TMV that accumulated locally and induced no systemic symptoms, moved through vascular tissue but failed to accumulate to high levels in systemic leaves. The lack of MIC1,3 accumulation in systemic leaves was correlated with RNA silencing activity in this tissue through the appearance of virus-specific, approximately 25-nucleotide RNAs and the loss of fluorescence from leaves of transgenic plants expressing the 126-kDa protein fused with green fluorescent protein (GFP). The ability of TMV strains and mutants altered in the 126-kDa protein open reading frame to cause systemic symptoms was positively correlated with their ability to transiently extend expression of the 126-kDa protein:GFP fusion and transiently suppress the silencing of free GFP in transgenic N. tabacum and transgenic N. benthamiana, respectively. Suppression of GFP silencing in N. benthamiana occurred only where virus accumulated to high levels. Using agro-infiltration assays, it was determined that the 126-kDa protein alone could delay GFP silencing. Based on these results and the known synergies between TMV and other viruses, the mechanism of suppression by the 126-kDa protein is compared with those utilized by other originally characterized suppressors of RNA silencing.
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