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J Mol Biol. 1992 Jun 20;225(4):1013-25.

Topological analysis of the hepatitis B virus core particle by cysteine-cysteine cross-linking.

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Zentrum für Molekulare Biologie Universität Heidelberg, F.R.G.


The nucleocapsid, or core particle, of hepatitis B virus is formed by 180 subunits of the core protein, which contains Cys at positions 48, 61, 107 and 183, the latter constituting the C terminus. Upon adventitious oxidation, some or all of these cysteine residues participate in the formation of disulphide bridges, leading to polymerization of the subunits within the particle. To utilize the cysteine residues as topological probes, we reduced the number of possible intersubunit crosslinks by replacing these residues individually, or in all combinations, by serine. A corresponding set of variants was constructed within the context of an assembly-competent core protein variant that lacks the highly basic C-terminal region. Analysis, by polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis under non-reducing conditions, of the oxidative crosslinking products formed by the wild-type and mutant proteins expressed in Escherichia coli, revealed a clear distinction between the three N-proximal, and the C-terminal Cys: N-proximal Cys formed intermolecular disulphide bonds only with other N-proximal cysteine residues, leading to dimerization. Cys48 and Cys61, in contrast to Cys107, could be crosslinked to the homologous cysteine residues in a second subunit, and are therefore located at the dimer interface. Cys 183 predominantly formed disulphide bonds with Cys183 in subunits other than those crosslinked by the N-proximal cysteine residues. Hence, the polymers generated by oxidation of the wild-type protein are S-S-linked dimeric N-terminal domains interconnected via Cys183/Cys183 disulphide bonds. The intermolecular crosslinks between the N-proximal cysteine residues were apparently the same in the C-terminally truncated and in the full-length proteins, corroborating the model in which the N-terminal domain and the C terminus of the HBV core protein form two distinct and structurally independent entities. The strong tendency of the N-terminal domain for dimeric interactions suggests that core protein dimers are the major intermediates in hepatitis B virus nucleocapsid assembly.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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