HIV-1 nucleocapsid protein and the secondary structure of the binary complex formed between tRNA(Lys.3) and viral RNA template play different roles during initiation of (-) strand DNA reverse transcription.


In human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1), the tRNA(Lys.3) primer and viral RNA template can form a specific complex that is characterized by extensive inter- and intramolecular interactions. Initiation of reverse transcription from this complex has been shown to be distinguished from subsequent elongation by early pausing events, such as at the +1 and +3 nucleotide positions. One major concern regarding the biological relevance of these results is that most kinetic studies of HIV-1 reverse transcription have been performed using tRNA(Lys.3)-viral (v) RNA complexes that were formed by heat annealing. In contrast, tRNA(Lys.3) in viruses is placed onto the primer binding site by nucleocapsid (NC) sequences of the Gag protein. In this study, we have further characterized the initiation features of reverse transcription in the presence of HIV-1 NC protein. In contrast to results obtained with a heat-annealed tRNA(Lys.3).vRNA complex, we found that polymerization reactions catalyzed by HIV-1 reverse transcriptase did not commonly pause at the +1 nucleotide position when a NC-annealed RNA complex was used, and that this was true regardless whether NC was actually still present during reverse transcription. This activity of NC required both zinc finger motifs, as demonstrated by experiments that employed zinc finger-mutated forms of NC protein (H23C NC and ddNC), supporting the involvement of the zinc fingers in the RNA chaperone activity of NC. However, NC was not able to help reverse transcriptase to escape the +3 pausing event. Mutagenesis of a stem structure within the tRNA(Lys.3). vRNA complex led to disappearance of the +3 pausing event as well as to significantly reduced rates of reverse transcription. Thus, this stem structure is essential for optimal reverse transcription, despite its role in promotion of the +3 pausing event.




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