Viral genomic RNA is packaged into virions with high specificity and selectivity. However, in vitro the Gag specificity towards viral RNA is obscured when measured in buffers containing physiological salt. Interestingly, when the binding is challenged by increased salt concentration, the addition of competing RNAs, or introducing mutations to Gag protein, the specificity towards viral RNA becomes detectable. The objective of this work was to examine the contributions of the individual HIV-1 Gag polyprotein domains to nonspecific and specific RNA binding and stability of the initial protein-RNA complexes. Using a panel of Gag proteins with mutations disabling different Gag-Gag or Gag-RNA interfaces, we investigated the distinct contributions of individual domains which distinguish the binding to viral and nonviral RNA by measuring the binding of the proteins to RNAs. We measured the binding affinity in near-physiological salt concentration, and then challenged the binding by increasing the ionic strength to suppress the electrostatic interactions and reveal the contribution of specific Gag–RNA and Gag–Gag interactions. Surprisingly, we observed that Gag dimerization and the highly basic region in the matrix domain contribute significantly to the specificity of viral RNA binding.
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