The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is an enveloped virus constituted by two monomeric RNA molecules that encode for 15 proteins. Among these are the structural proteins that are translated as the gag polyprotein. In order to become infectious, HIV must undergo a maturation process mediated by the proteolytic cleavage of gag to give rise to the isolated structural protein matrix, capsid (CA), nucleocapsid as well as p6 and spacer peptides 1 and 2. Upon maturation, the 13 N-terminal residues from CA fold into a β-hairpin, which is stabilized mainly by a salt bridge between Pro1 and Asp51. Previous reports have shown that non-formation of the salt bridge, which potentially disrupts proper β-hairpin arrangement, generates noninfectious virus or aberrant cores. To date, however, there is no consensus on the role of the β-hairpin. In order to shed light in this subject, we have generated mutations in the hairpin region to examine what features would be crucial for the β-hairpin's role in retroviral mature core formation. These features include the importance of the proline at the N-terminus, the amino acid sequence, and the physical structure of the β-hairpin itself. The presented experiments provide biochemical evidence that β-hairpin formation plays an important role in regard to CA protein conformation required to support proper mature core arrangement. Hydrogen/deuterium exchange and in vitro assembly reactions illustrated the importance of the β-hairpin structure, its dynamics, and its influence on the orientation of helix 1 for the assembly of the mature CA lattice.
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