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J Virol. 1999 Oct;73(10):8798-807.

Structure-based mutagenesis study of hepatitis C virus NS3 helicase.

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  • 1Vertex Pharmaceuticals Incorporated, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA.


The NS3 protein of hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a bifunctional protein containing a serine protease in the N-terminal one-third, which is stimulated upon binding of the NS4A cofactor, and an RNA helicase in the C-terminal two-thirds. In this study, a C-terminal hexahistidine-tagged helicase domain of the HCV NS3 protein was expressed in Escherichia coli and purified to homogeneity by conventional chromatography. The purified HCV helicase domain has a basal ATPase activity, a polynucleotide-stimulated ATPase activity, and a nucleic acid unwinding activity and binds efficiently to single-stranded polynucleotide. Detailed characterization of the purified HCV helicase domain with regard to all four activities is presented. Recently, we published an X-ray crystallographic structure of a binary complex of the HCV helicase with a (dU)(8) oligonucleotide, in which several conserved residues of the HCV helicase were shown to be involved in interactions between the HCV helicase and oligonucleotide. Here, site-directed mutagenesis was used to elucidate the roles of these residues in helicase function. Four individual mutations, Thr to Ala at position 269, Thr to Ala at position 411, Trp to Leu at position 501, and Trp to Ala at position 501, produced a severe reduction of RNA binding and completely abolished unwinding activity and stimulation of ATPase activity by poly(U), although the basal ATPase activity (activity in the absence of polynucleotide) of these mutants remained intact. Alanine substitution at Ser-231 or Ser-370 resulted in enzymes that were indistinguishable from wild-type HCV helicase with regard to all four activities. A mutant bearing Phe at Trp-501 showed wild-type levels of basal ATPase, unwinding activity, and single-stranded RNA binding activity. Interestingly, ATPase activity of this mutant became less responsive to stimulation by poly(U) but not to stimulation by other polynucleotides, such as poly(C). Given the conservation of some of these residues in other DNA and RNA helicases, their role in the mechanism of unwinding of double-stranded nucleic acid is discussed.

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