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J Virol. 2015 Jan 15;89(2):1267-77. doi: 10.1128/JVI.02997-14. Epub 2014 Nov 12.

Electron cryotomography studies of maturing HIV-1 particles reveal the assembly pathway of the viral core.

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Division of Biology, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, USA.
Division of Biology, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, USA Howard Hughes Medical Institute, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, USA


To better characterize the assembly of the HIV-1 core, we have used electron cryotomography (ECT) to image infected cells and the viral particles cryopreserved next to them. We observed progressive stages of virus assembly and egress, including flower-like flat Gag lattice assemblies, hemispherical budding profiles, and virus buds linked to the plasma membrane via a thin membrane neck. The population of budded viral particles contains immature, maturation-intermediate, and mature core morphologies. Structural characteristics of the maturation intermediates suggest that the core assembly pathway involves the formation of a CA sheet that associates with the condensed ribonucleoprotein (RNP) complex. Our analysis also reveals a correlation between RNP localization within the viral particle and the formation of conical cores, suggesting that the RNP helps drive conical core assembly. Our findings support an assembly pathway for the HIV-1 core that begins with a small CA sheet that associates with the RNP to form the core base, followed by polymerization of the CA sheet along one side of the conical core toward the tip, and then closure around the body of the cone.


During HIV-1 assembly and release, the Gag polyprotein is organized into a signature hexagonal lattice, termed the immature lattice. To become infectious, the newly budded virus must disassemble the immature lattice by proteolyzing Gag and then reassemble the key proteolytic product, the structural protein p24 (CA), into a distinct, mature hexagonal lattice during a process termed maturation. The mature HIV-1 virus contains a conical capsid that encloses the condensed viral genome at its wide base. Mutations or small molecules that interfere with viral maturation also disrupt viral infectivity. Little is known about the assembly pathway that results in the conical core and genome encapsidation. Here, we have used electron cryotomography to structurally characterize HIV-1 particles that are actively maturing. Based on the morphologies of core assembly intermediates, we propose that CA forms a sheet-like structure that associates with the condensed viral genome to produce the mature infectious conical core.

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