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PLoS One. 2012;7(1):e30038. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0030038. Epub 2012 Jan 17.

Molecular dynamics studies of the nucleoprotein of influenza A virus: role of the protein flexibility in RNA binding.

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  • 1Virologie et Immunologie Moléculaires, UR 892, Centre INRA de Jouy en Josas, France.


The influenza viruses contain a segmented, negative stranded RNA genome. Each RNA segment is covered by multiple copies of the nucleoprotein (NP). X-ray structures have shown that NP contains well-structured domains juxtaposed with regions of missing electron densities corresponding to loops. In this study, we tested if these flexible loops gated or promoted RNA binding and RNA-induced oligomerization of NP. We first performed molecular dynamics simulations of wt NP monomer and trimer in comparison with the R361A protein mutated in the RNA binding groove, using the H1N1 NP as the initial structure. Calculation of the root-mean-square fluctuations highlighted the presence of two flexible loops in NP trimer: loop 1 (73-90), loop 2 (200-214). In NP, loops 1 and 2 formed a 10-15 Å-wide pinch giving access to the RNA binding groove. Loop 1 was stabilized by interactions with K113 of the adjacent β-sheet 1 (91-112) that interacted with the RNA grove (linker 360-373) via multiple hydrophobic contacts. In R361A, a salt bridge formed between E80 of loop 1 and R208 of loop 2 driven by hydrophobic contacts between L79 and W207, due to a decreased flexibility of loop 2 and loop 1 unfolding. Thus, RNA could not access its binding groove in R361A; accordingly, R361A had a much lower affinity for RNA than NP. Disruption of the E80-R208 interaction in the triple mutant R361A-E80A-E81A increased its RNA binding affinity and restored its oligomerization back to wt levels in contrast with impaired levels of R361A. Our data suggest that the flexibility of loops 1 and 2 is required for RNA sampling and binding which likely involve conformational change(s) of the nucleoprotein.

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