The untranslated leader of the RNA genome of the human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) encodes multiple signals that regulate distinct steps of the viral replication cycle. The RNA secondary structure of several replicative signals in the HIV-1 leader is critical for function. Well-known examples include the TAR hairpin that forms the binding site for the viral Tat trans-activator protein and the DIS hairpin that is important for dimerization and subsequent packaging of the viral RNA into virion particles. In this study, we present evidence for the formation of a tertiary structure by the complete HIV-1 leader RNA. This conformer was recognized as a fast-migrating band on nondenaturing polyacrylamide gels, and such a migration effect is generally attributed to differences in compactness. Both the 5′ and 3′ domains of the 335-nt HIV-1 leader RNA are required for the formation of the compact RNA structure, and the presence of several putative interaction domains was revealed by an extensive analysis of the denaturing effect of antisense DNA oligonucleotides. The buffer conditions and sequence requirements for conformer formation are strikingly different from that of the RNA-dimerization reaction. In particular, the conformer was destabilized in the presence of Mg2+ ions and by the viral nucleocapsid (NC) protein. The presence of a stable RNA structure in the HIV-1 leader was also apparent when this RNA was used as template for reverse transcription, which yielded massive stops ahead of the structured leader domain. Formation of the conformer is a reversible event, suggesting that the HIV-1 leader is a dynamic molecule. The putative biological function of this conformational polymorphism as molecular RNA switch in the HIV-1 replication cycle is discussed.
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