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Biopolymers. 1998 Mar;45(3):217-29.

Properties and growth mechanism of the ordered aggregation of a model RNA by the HIV-1 nucleocapsid protein: an electron microscopy investigation.

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Laboratoire de microscopie cellulaire et moléculaire, URA 147 du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Institut Gustave Roussy, Villejuif, France.


NCp7, the nucleocapsid protein of the human immunodeficiency virus type 1, induces an ordered aggregation of RNAs, a mechanism that is thought to be involved in the NCp7-induced promotion of nucleic acid annealing. To further investigate this aggregation the morphology and the properties of the NCp7-induced aggregates of the model RNA homoribopolymer, polyA, were investigated by electron microscopy in various conditions. In almost all the tested conditions, the aggregates were spherical and consisted of a central dense core surrounded by a less dense halo made of NCp7-covered polyA molecules. The formation of these aggregates with a narrow distribution of sizes constitutes a distinctive feature of NCp7 over other single-stranded nucleic acid binding proteins. In most conditions, at the shortest times that can be reached experimentally, all the polyA molecules were already incorporated in small aggregates, suggesting that the nucleation step and the first aggregation events took place rapidly. The aggregates then orderly grew with time by fusion of the smaller aggregates to give larger ones. The aggregate halo was important in the fusion process by initiating the bridging between the colliding aggregates. In the presence of an excess of protein, the aggregates grew rapidly but were loosely packed and dissociated easily, suggesting adverse protein-protein interactions in the aggregates obtained in these conditions. In the presence of an excess of nucleotides, the presence of both amorphous nonspherical and slowly growing spherical aggregates suggested some changes in the mechanism of aggregate growth due to an incomplete covering of polyA molecules by NCp7. Finally, we showed that in the absence of added salt, the aggregate fusions were unfavored but not the initial events giving the first aggregates, the reverse being true in the presence of high salt concentrations (> or = 300 mM).

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