The three subsets of virions that comprise the Brome mosaic virus (BMV) were previously thought to be indistinguishable. This work tested the hypothesis that distinct capsid-RNA interactions in the BMV virions allow different rates of viral RNA release. Several results support distinct interactions between the capsid and the BMV genomic RNAs. First, the deletion of the first eight residues of the BMV coat protein (CP) resulted in the RNA1-containing particles having altered morphologies, while those containing RNA2 were unaffected. Second, subsets of the BMV particles separated by density gradients into a pool enriched for RNA1 (B1) and for RNA2 and RNA3/4 (B2.3/4) were found to have different physiochemical properties. Compared to the B2.3/4 particles, the B1 particles were more sensitive to protease digestion and had greater resistivity to nanoindentation by atomic force microscopy and increased susceptibility to nuclease digestion. Mapping studies showed that portions of the arginine-rich N-terminal tail of the CP could interact with RNA1. Mutational analysis in the putative RNA1-contacting residues severely reduced encapsidation of BMV RNA1 without affecting the encapsidation of RNA2. Finally, during infection of plants, the more easily released RNA1 accumulated to higher levels early in the infection.
Importance: Viruses with genomes packaged in distinct virions could theoretically release the genomes at different times to regulate the timing of gene expression. Using an RNA virus composed of three particles, we demonstrated that the RNA in one of the virions is released more easily than the other two in vitro. The differential RNA release is due to distinct interactions between the viral capsid protein and the RNAs. The ease of RNA release is also correlated with the more rapid accumulation of that RNA in infected plants. Our study identified a novel role for capsid-RNA interactions in the regulation of a viral infection.