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J Mol Biol. 2001 Nov 23;314(2):217-32.

Identification of a high affinity nucleocapsid protein binding element within the Moloney murine leukemia virus Psi-RNA packaging signal: implications for genome recognition.

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Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Maryland Baltimore County, 1000 Hilltop Circle, Baltimore, MD 21250, USA.


Murine leukemia virus (MLV) is currently the most widely used gene delivery system in gene therapy trials. The simple retrovirus packages two copies of its RNA genome by a mechanism that involves interactions between the nucleocapsid (NC) domain of a virally-encoded Gag polyprotein and a segment of the RNA genome located just upstream of the Gag initiation codon, known as the Psi-site. Previous studies indicated that the MLV Psi-site contains three stem loops (SLB-SLD), and that stem loops SLC and SLD play prominent roles in packaging. We have developed a method for the preparation and purification of large quantities of recombinant Moloney MLV NC protein, and have studied its interactions with a series of oligoribonucleotides that contain one or more of the Psi-RNA stem loops. At RNA concentrations above approximately 0.3 mM, isolated stem loop SLB forms a duplex and stem loops SL-C and SL-D form kissing complexes, as expected from previous studies. However, neither the monomeric nor the dimeric forms of these isolated stem loops binds NC with significant affinity. Longer constructs containing two stem loops (SL-BC and SL-CD) also exhibit low affinities for NC. However, NC binds with high affinity and stoichiometrically to both the monomeric and dimeric forms of an RNA construct that contains all three stem loops (SL-BCD; K(d)=132(+/-55) nM). Titration of SL-BCD with NC also shifts monomer-dimer equilibrium toward the dimer. Mutagenesis experiments demonstrate that the conserved GACG tetraloops of stem loops C and D do not influence the monomer-dimer equilibrium of SL-BCD, that the tetraloop of stem loop B does not participate directly in NC binding, and that the tetraloops of stem loops C and D probably also do not bind to NC. These surprising results differ considerably from those observed for HIV-1, where NC binds to individual stem loops with high affinity via interactions with exposed residues of the tetraloops. The present results indicate that MLV NC binds to a pocket or surface that only exists in the presence of all three stem loops.

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