Robust translocation along a molecular monorail: the NS3 helicase from hepatitis C virus traverses unusually large disruptions in its track

J Mol Biol. 2006 May 12;358(4):974-82. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2006.02.078. Epub 2006 Mar 20.


The NS3 helicase is essential for replication of the hepatitis C virus. This multifunctional Superfamily 2 helicase protein unwinds nucleic acid duplexes in a stepwise, ATP-dependent manner. Although kinetic features of its mechanism are beginning to emerge, little is known about the physical determinants for NS3 translocation along a strand of nucleic acid. For example, it is not known whether NS3 can traverse covalent or physical discontinuities on the tracking strand. Here we provide evidence that NS3 translocates with a mechanism that is different from its well-studied relative, the Vaccinia helicase NPH-II. Like NPH-II, NS3 translocates along the loading strand (the strand bearing the 3'-overhang) and it fails to unwind substrates that contain nicks, or covalent discontinuities in the loading strand. However, unlike NPH-II, NS3 readily unwinds RNA duplexes that contain long stretches of polyglycol, which are moieties that bear no resemblance to nucleic acid. Whether located on the tracking strand, the top strand, or both, long polyglycol regions fail to disrupt the function of NS3. This suggests that NS3 does not require the continuous formation of specific contacts with the ribose-phosphate backbone as it translocates along an RNA duplex, which is an observation consistent with the large NS3 kinetic step size (18 base-pairs). Rather, once NS3 loads onto a substrate, the helicase can translocate along the loading strand of an RNA duplex like a monorail train following a track. Bumps in the track do not significantly disturb NS3 unwinding, but a break in the track de-rails the helicase.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Base Sequence
  • Hepacivirus / enzymology*
  • Hepacivirus / genetics
  • Models, Biological
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • RNA Helicases / chemistry
  • RNA Helicases / genetics
  • RNA Helicases / metabolism*
  • RNA, Viral / chemistry
  • RNA, Viral / genetics
  • RNA, Viral / metabolism
  • Recombinant Proteins / chemistry
  • Recombinant Proteins / genetics
  • Recombinant Proteins / metabolism
  • Substrate Specificity
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins / chemistry
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins / genetics
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins / metabolism*


  • NS3 protein, hepatitis C virus
  • RNA, Viral
  • Recombinant Proteins
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins
  • RNA Helicases