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Biopolymers. 1997 Mar;41(3):301-12.

Ordered aggregation of ribonucleic acids by the human immunodeficiency virus type 1 nucleocapsid protein.

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Laboratoire de Biophysique, URA 491 du CNRS, Faculté de Pharmacie de Strasbourg I, Illkirch, France.


The nucleocapsid protein NCp7, which is the major genomic RNA binding protein of human immunodeficiency virus type 1, plays an important role in several key steps of the viral life cycle. Many of the NCp7 activities, notably the nucleic acid annealing and the genomic RNA wrapping ones, are thought to be linked to a nonspecific binding of NCp7 to its nucleic acid targets. The mechanism of these activities is still debated but several clues are in favor of an intermediate aggregation of nucleic acids by NCp7. To check and characterize the nucleic acid aggregating properties of NCp7, we investigated the interaction of NCp7 with the model RNA homopolymer, polyA, by quasielastic light scattering and optical density measurements. The ordered growth of monodisperse large particles independently of the nucleic acid size and the almost complete covering of polyA by NCp7 strongly suggested an ordered aggregation mechanism. The aggregate kinetics of growth in the optimum protein concentration range (> or = 2 microM) were governed by a so-called Ostwald ripening mechanism limited by transfer of NCp7-covered polyA complexes from small to large aggregates. The aggregation process was strongly dependent on both Na+ and Mg2+ concentrations, the optimum concentrations being in the physiological range. Similar conclusions held true when polyA was replaced by 16S + 23S ribosomal RNA, suggesting that the NCp7 aggregating properties were only poorly dependent on the nucleic acid sequence and structure. Finally, as in the NCp7 annealing activities, the basic regions of NCp7, but not the zinc fingers, were found critical in nucleic acid aggregation. Taken together, our data indicate that NCp7 is a highly efficient nucleic acid aggregating agent and strengthen the hypothesis that aggregation may constitute a transient step in various NCp7 functions.

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