The 3'-to-5' exoribonuclease in coronavirus (CoV) nonstructural protein 14 (nsp14-ExoN) mediates RNA proofreading during genome replication. ExoN catalytic residues are arranged in three motifs: I (DE), II (E), III (D). Alanine substitution of the motif I residues (AA-E-D, four nucleotide substitutions) in murine hepatitis virus (MHV) and SARS-CoV yields viable mutants with impaired replication and fitness, increased mutation rates, and attenuated virulence in vivo. Despite these impairments, MHV- and SARS-CoV ExoN motif I AA mutants (ExoN-AA) have not reverted at motif I in diverse in vitro and in vivo environments, suggesting that profound fitness barriers prevent motif I reversion. To test this hypothesis, we engineered MHV-ExoN-AA with 1, 2 or 3 nucleotide mutations along genetic pathways to AA-to-DE reversion. We show that engineered intermediate revertants were viable but had no increased replication or competitive fitness compared to MHV-ExoN-AA. In contrast, a low passage (P10) MHV-ExoN-AA showed increased replication and competitive fitness without reversion of ExoN-AA. Finally, engineered reversion of ExoN-AA to ExoN-DE in the presence of ExoN-AA passage-adaptive mutations resulted in significant fitness loss. These results demonstrate that while reversion is possible, at least one alternative adaptive pathway is more rapidly advantageous than intermediate revertants and may alter the genetic background to render reversion detrimental to fitness. Our results provide an evolutionary rationale for lack of ExoN-AA reversion, illuminate potential multi-protein replicase interactions and coevolution, and support future studies aimed at stabilizing attenuated CoV ExoN-AA mutants.
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