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J Virol. 2007 Apr;81(8):4002-11. Epub 2007 Jan 31.

Dimer initiation signal of human immunodeficiency virus type 1: its role in partner selection during RNA copackaging and its effects on recombination.

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HIV Drug Resistance Program, NCI-Frederick, P.O. Box B, Building 535, Room 336, Frederick, MD 21702, USA.


Frequent human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) recombination occurs during DNA synthesis when portions of the two copackaged RNAs are used as templates to generate a hybrid DNA copy. Therefore, the frequency of copackaging of genomic RNAs from two different viruses (heterozygous virion formation) affects the generation of genotypically different recombinants. We hypothesized that the selection of copackaged RNA partners is largely determined by Watson-Crick pairing at the dimer initiation signal (DIS), a 6-nucleotide palindromic sequence at the terminal loop of stem-loop 1 (SL1). To test our hypothesis, we examined whether heterozygous virion formation could be encouraged by manipulation of the DIS. Three pairs of viruses were generated with compensatory DIS mutations, designed so that perfect DIS base pairing could only occur between RNAs derived from different viruses, not between RNAs from the same virus. We observed that vector pairs with compensatory DIS mutations had an almost twofold increase in recombination rates compared with wild-type viruses. These data suggest that heterozygous virion formation was enhanced in viruses with compensatory DIS mutations (from 50% to more than 90% in some viral pairings). The role of the SL1 stem in heterozygous virion formation was also tested; our results indicated that the intermolecular base pairing of the stem sequences does not affect RNA partner selection. In summary, our results demonstrate that the Watson-Crick pairing of the DIS is a major determinant in the selection of the copackaged RNA partner, and altering the base pairing of the DIS can change the proportion of heterozygous viruses in a viral population. These results also strongly support the hypothesis that HIV-1 RNA dimers are formed prior to encapsidation.

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