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J Virol. 2014 Mar;88(5):2530-43. doi: 10.1128/JVI.03235-13. Epub 2013 Dec 18.

Nucleic acid chaperone activity associated with the arginine-rich domain of human hepatitis B virus core protein.

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Graduate Institute of Life Sciences, National Defense Medical Center, Taipei, Taiwan.


Hepatitis B virus (HBV) DNA replication occurs within the HBV icosahedral core particles. HBV core protein (HBc) contains an arginine-rich domain (ARD) at its carboxyl terminus. This ARD domain of HBc 149-183 is known to be important for viral replication but not known to have a structure. Recently, nucleocapsid proteins of several viruses have been shown to contain nucleic acid chaperone activity, which can facilitate structural rearrangement of viral genome. Major features of nucleic acid chaperones include highly basic amino acid residues and flexible protein structure. To test the nucleic acid chaperone hypothesis for HBc ARD, we first used the disassembled full-length HBc from Escherichia coli to analyze the nucleic acid annealing and strand displacement activities. To exclude the potential contamination of chaperones from E. coli, we designed synthetic HBc ARD peptides with different lengths and serine phosphorylations. We demonstrated that HBc ARD peptide can behave like a bona fide nucleic acid chaperone and that the chaperone activity depends on basic residues of the ARD domain. The loss of chaperone activity by arginine-to-alanine substitutions in the ARD can be rescued by restoring basic residues in the ARD. Furthermore, the chaperone activity is subject to regulation by phosphorylation and dephosphorylation at the HBc ARD. Interestingly, the HBc ARD can enhance in vitro cleavage activity of RNA substrate by a hammerhead ribozyme. We discuss here the potential significance of the HBc ARD chaperone activity in the context of viral DNA replication, in particular, at the steps of primer translocations and circularization of linear replicative intermediates.


Hepatitis B virus is a major human pathogen. At present, no effective treatment can completely eradicate the virus from patients with chronic hepatitis B. We report here a novel chaperone activity associated with the viral core protein. Our discovery could lead to a new drug design for more effective treatment against hepatitis B virus in the future.

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