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Human herpesvirus 8 interleukin-6 (vIL-6) displays 25% amino acid identity with human IL-6 (hIL-6) and shares an overall four-helix-bundle structure and gp130-mediated STAT/mitogen-activated protein kinase signaling with its cellular counterpart. However, vIL-6 is distinct in that it can signal through gp130 alone, in the absence of the nonsignaling gp80 alpha-subunit of the IL-6 receptor. To investigate the structural requirements for gp80 independence of vIL-6, a series of expression vectors encoding vIL-6/hIL-6 chimeric and site-mutated IL-6 proteins was generated. The replacement of hIL-6 residues with three vIL-6-specific tryptophans implicated in gp80 independence from crystallographic studies or the A and C helices containing these residues did not confer gp80 independence to hIL-6. The N- and C-terminal regions of vIL-6 could be substituted with hIL-6 sequences with the retention of gp80-independent signaling, but substitutions of other regions of vIL-6 (helix A, A/B loop, helix B, helix C, and proximal half of helix D) with equivalent sequences of hIL-6 abolished gp80 independence. Interestingly, the B helix of vIL-6 was absolutely required for gp80 independence, despite the fact that this region contains no receptor-binding residues. Point mutational analysis of helix C, which contains residues involved in physical and functional interactions with gp130 domains 2 and 3 (cytokine-binding homology region), identified a variant, VI120EE, that was able to signal and dimerize gp130 only in the presence of gp80. gp80 was also found to stabilize gp130:g130 dimers induced by a distal D helix variant of vIL-6 that was nonetheless able to signal independently of gp80. Together, our data reveal the crucial importance of overall vIL-6 structure and conformation for gp80-independent signaling and provide functional and physical evidence of the stabilization of vIL-6-induced gp130 signaling complexes by gp80.  

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