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Virology. 2009 Mar 1;385(1):233-44. doi: 10.1016/j.virol.2008.11.028. Epub 2008 Dec 13.

Role of capsid sequence and immature nucleocapsid proteins p9 and p15 in Human Immunodeficiency Virus type 1 genomic RNA dimerization.

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McGill AIDS Center, Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research, Jewish General Hospital, Montreal, Qu├ębec, Canada.


HIV-1 genomic RNA (gRNA) dimerization is important for viral infectivity and is regulated by proteolytic processing of the Gag precursor protein (Pr55gag) under the direction of the viral protease. The processing occurs in successive steps and, to date, the step associated with formation of a wild-type (WT) level of gRNA dimers has not been identified. The primary cleavage divides Pr55gag into two proteins. The C-terminal polypeptide is termed NCp15 (NCp7-p1-p6) because it contains the nucleocapsid protein (NC), a key determinant of gRNA dimerization and packaging. To examine the importance of precursor polypeptides NCp15 and NCp9 (NCp7-p1), we introduced mutations that prevented the proteolytic cleavages responsible for the appearance of NCp9 or NCp7. Using native Northern blot analysis, we show that gRNA dimerization was impaired when both the secondary (p1-p6) and tertiary (p7-p1) cleavage sites of NCp15 were abolished, but unaffected when only one or the other site was abolished. Though processing to NCp9 therefore suffices for a WT level of gRNA dimerization, we also show that preventing cleavage at the p7-p1 site abolished HIV-1 replication. To identify the minimum level of protease activity compatible with a WT level of gRNA dimers, we introduced mutations Thr26Ser and Ala28Ser in the viral protease to partially inactivate it, and we prepared composite HIV-1 resulting from the cotransfection of various ratios of WT and protease-inactive proviral DNAs. The results reveal that a 30% processing of Pr55gag into mature capsid proteins (CA/CA-p2) yielded a WT level of gRNA dimers, while a 10% Pr55gag processing hardly increased gRNA dimerization above the level seen in protease-inactive virions. We found that full gRNA dimerization required less than 50% WT NC in complementation asssays. Finally, we show that if we destroy alpha helix 1 of the capsid protein (CA), gRNA dimerization is impaired to the same extent as when the viral protease is inactivated. Cotransfection studies show that this CA mutation, in contrast to the NC-disabling mutations, has a dominant negative effect on HIV-1 RNA dimerization, viral core formation, and viral replication. This represents the first evidence that a capsid mutation can affect HIV-1 RNA dimerization.

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