Assembly of HIV-1, which causes AIDS, takes place on the inner plasma membrane leaflet of infected cells, a geometric building process that creates hexamers out of trimers of the viral Gag protein, as guided by Gag’s N-terminal matrix domain.
Yet certain details of that virion assembly have been lacking for four decades. In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Jamil Saad, Ph.D., University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), and colleagues provide the first atomic view of the matrix lattice, a step that advances the understanding of key mechanisms of viral assembly and viral envelope protein incorporation.
“Our findings may facilitate the development of new therapeutic agents that inhibit HIV-1 assembly, envelope incorporation and ultimately virus production,” said Saad, a professor of microbiology at UAB.
The Gag protein is post-translationally modified, in which a lipid-like myristate group is added to help Gag bind to the plasma membrane. How the myristoylated matrix domain, or myrMA, of Gag assembles into lattice eluded detection until now.
Techniques with low molecular resolution — such as cryo-electron diffraction and cryo-electron tomography — suggested that the myrMA protein organizes as trimers, and these trimers then undergo higher-order organization to form hexamers of trimers. Saad’s study is consistent with a recent study, which suggested that the myrMA protein undergoes dramatic structural changes to allow the formation of distinct hexameric lattices in immature and mature viral particles. Virus maturation is the last step of the virus replication cycle, as the capsid core forms inside the assembled virus, yielding infectious particles.
The envelope protein of HIV-1, or Env, is a transmembrane protein delivered to the plasma membrane by the cell’s secretory pathway. The bulk of the Env protein extends beyond the membrane, but a tail hangs through the membrane back into the inside of the cell. Genetic and biochemical studies have suggested that incorporation of the viral Env protein into the virus particles also depends on interaction between the myrMA domain and the cytoplasmic tail of Env. In 2017, Saad’s lab solved the high-resolution structure of the cytoplasmic tail of Env, which was the last unknown protein structure of HIV-1.
Env is a key infectivity protein. As a mature HIV-1 virus approaches a target cell, Env attaches to proteins on the outside of the uninfected cell, and then the Env protein snaps like a mousetrap to fuse the viral membrane with the cell membrane.
The structures described by Saad and UAB colleagues showing molecular details at 2.1- angstroms resolution were determined via x-ray diffraction data collected at the Southeast Regional Collaborative Access Team (SER-CAT) beamline 22-ID at the Advance Photon Source. The structures show that the myristic acid of myrMA plays a key role in stabilizing the lattice structure, so the ability to form crystals of myrMA was important. They achieved this elusive technical challenge by removing 20 amino acids from the end of the 132-amino acid myrMA. Formation of a Gag lattice on the plasma membrane is known to be obligatory for the assembly of immature HIV-1 and Env incorporation.
Read more on the Argonne website
Image: X-ray crystallography revealed the structure of the HIV-1 matrix protein at 2.1 angstroms resolution, advancing understanding of key mechanisms of viral assembly.