Identifying the assembly intermediate in which Gag first associates with unspliced HIV-1 RNA suggests a novel model for HIV-1 RNA packaging.

Publication Type:

Journal Article


PLoS pathogens, Volume 14, Issue 4, p.e1006977 (2018)


Electron Microscopy Core Facility


During immature capsid assembly, HIV-1 genome packaging is initiated when Gag first associates with unspliced HIV-1 RNA by a poorly understood process. Previously, we defined a pathway of sequential intracellular HIV-1 capsid assembly intermediates; here we sought to identify the intermediate in which HIV-1 Gag first associates with unspliced HIV-1 RNA. In provirus-expressing cells, unspliced HIV-1 RNA was not found in the soluble fraction of the cytosol, but instead was largely in complexes ≥30S. We did not detect unspliced HIV-1 RNA associated with Gag in the first assembly intermediate, which consists of soluble Gag. Instead, the earliest assembly intermediate in which we detected Gag associated with unspliced HIV-1 RNA was the second assembly intermediate (~80S intermediate), which is derived from a host RNA granule containing two cellular facilitators of assembly, ABCE1 and the RNA granule protein DDX6. At steady-state, this RNA-granule-derived ~80S complex was the smallest assembly intermediate that contained Gag associated with unspliced viral RNA, regardless of whether lysates contained intact or disrupted ribosomes, or expressed WT or assembly-defective Gag. A similar complex was identified in HIV-1-infected T cells. RNA-granule-derived assembly intermediates were detected in situ as sites of Gag colocalization with ABCE1 and DDX6; moreover these granules were far more numerous and smaller than well-studied RNA granules termed P bodies. Finally, we identified two steps that lead to association of assembling Gag with unspliced HIV-1 RNA. Independent of viral-RNA-binding, Gag associates with a broad class of RNA granules that largely lacks unspliced viral RNA (step 1). If a viral-RNA-binding domain is present, Gag further localizes to a subset of these granules that contains unspliced viral RNA (step 2). Thus, our data raise the possibility that HIV-1 packaging is initiated not by soluble Gag, but by Gag targeted to a subset of host RNA granules containing unspliced HIV-1 RNA.