Proteolytic processing of an HIV-1 pol polyprotein precursor: insights into the mechanism of reverse transcriptase p66/p51 heterodimer formation

Int J Biochem Cell Biol. 2004 Sep;36(9):1836-47. doi: 10.1016/j.biocel.2004.02.020.


HIV-1 reverse transcriptase (RT) is a heterodimer comprising a 66 kDa subunit (p66) and a p66-derived 51 kDa subunit (p51). RT is translated as part of a larger gag-pol polyprotein and subsequently processed to the p66/p51 heterodimer by HIV-1 protease (PR) during viral maturation. The processing events involved in the formation of the RT p66 and p51 subunits and the pathway(s) of RT dimer formation are poorly characterized. Attempts to study the kinetics of PR-catalyzed formation of p66/p51 HIV-1 RT in isolated HIV virions produced in the presence of HIV PR inhibitors were unsuccessful due to difficulties in removal of the tight-binding inhibitor to initiate proteolytic processing. Accordingly, an inducible bacterial expression vector encoding a 90 kDa pol polyprotein fragment was constructed. Following expression in Escherichia coli, the pol polyprotein underwent time-dependent proteolytic processing to the RT p66/p51 heterodimer. This processing was catalyzed entirely by HIV-1 PR since mutations that inactivate PR prevented RT heterodimer formation. The kinetics of RT processing follow an ordered sequential pathway in which RT p66 is first excised from the pol polyprotein, followed by formation of the p51 subunit. Processing of the p66 subunit to form p51 apparently proceeds through a p66/p66 RT homodimer intermediate since the L234A mutation in RT, a mutation that prevents RT dimerization, resulted in the formation of RT p66 only. These results provide the first experimental data defining the pathway for the HIV-1 PR catalyzed formation of the p66/p51 HIV-1 RT heterodimer.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Base Sequence
  • COS Cells
  • Dimerization
  • Escherichia coli / genetics
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism
  • Gene Products, pol / metabolism*
  • HIV Protease Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • HIV Reverse Transcriptase / genetics
  • HIV Reverse Transcriptase / metabolism*
  • HIV-1 / metabolism*
  • Kinetics
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Mutation
  • Protein Precursors / metabolism
  • Protein Processing, Post-Translational
  • Ritonavir / pharmacology


  • Gene Products, pol
  • HIV Protease Inhibitors
  • Protein Precursors
  • HIV Reverse Transcriptase
  • Ritonavir