Picornaviruses have a 22-24 amino acid peptide, VPg, bound covalently at the 5' end of their RNA, that is essential for replication. VPgs are uridylylated at a conserved tyrosine to form VPgpU, the primer of RNA synthesis by the viral polymerase. This first complete structure for any uridylylated VPg, of poliovirus type 1 (PV1)-VPgpU, shows that conserved amino acids in VPg stabilize the bound UMP, with the uridine atoms involved in base pairing and chain elongation projected outward. Comparing this structure to PV1-VPg and partial structures of VPg/VPgpU from other picornaviruses suggests that enteroviral polymerases require a more stable VPg structure than does the distantly related aphthovirus, foot and mouth disease virus (FMDV). The glutamine residue at the C-terminus of PV1-VPgpU lies in back of the uridine base and may stabilize its position during chain elongation and/or contribute to base specificity. Under in vivo-like conditions with the authentic cre(2C) hairpin RNA and Mg(2+), 5-methylUTP cannot compete with UTP for VPg uridylyation in an in vitro uridylyation assay, but both nucleotides are equally incorporated by PV1-polymerase with Mn(2+) and a poly-A RNA template. This indicates the 5 position is recognized under in vivo conditions. The compact VPgpU structure docks within the active site cavity of the PV-polymerase, close to the position seen for the fragment of FMDV-VPgpU with its polymerase. This structure could aid in design of novel enterovirus inhibitors, and stabilization upon uridylylation may also be pertinent for post-translational uridylylation reactions that underlie other biological processes.
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