The cell tropism of porcine respiratory coronavirus for airway epithelial cells is determined by the expression of porcine aminopeptidase N
Porcine respiratory coronavirus (PRCoV) infects the epithelial cells in the respiratory tract of pigs, causing a mild respiratory disease. We applied air-liquid interface (ALI) cultures of well-differentiated porcine airway cells to mimic the respiratory tract epithelium in vitro and use it for analyzing the infection by PRCoV. As reported for most coronaviruses, virus entry and virus release occurred mainly via the apical membrane domain. A novel finding was that PRCoV preferentially targets non-ciliated and among them the non-mucus-producing cells. Aminopeptidase N (APN), the cellular receptor for PRCoV was also more abundantly expressed on this type of cell suggesting that APN is a determinant of the cell tropism. Interestingly, differentiation-dependent differences were found both in the expression of pAPN and the susceptibility to PRCoV infection. Cells in an early differentiation stage express higher levels of pAPN and are more susceptible to infection by PRCoV than are well-differentiated cells. A difference in the susceptibility to infection was also detected when tracheal and bronchial cells were compared. The increased susceptibility to infection of bronchial epithelial cells was, however, not due to an increased abundance of APN on the cell surface. Our data reveal a complex pattern of infection in porcine differentiated airway epithelial cells that could not be elucidated with immortalized cell lines. The results are expected to have relevance also for the analysis of other respiratory viruses.