Two copies of unspliced human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-1 genomic RNA (gRNA) are preferentially selected for packaging by the group-specific antigen (Gag) polyprotein into progeny virions as a dimer during the late stages of the viral lifecycle. Elucidating the RNA features responsible for selective recognition of the full-length gRNA in the presence of an abundance of other cellular RNAs and spliced viral RNAs remains an area of intense research. The recent nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) structure by Keane et al.  expands upon previous efforts to determine the conformation of the HIV-1 RNA packaging signal. The data support a secondary structure wherein sequences that constitute the major splice donor site are sequestered through base pairing, and a tertiary structure that adopts a tandem 3-way junction motif that exposes the dimerization initiation site and unpaired guanosines for specific recognition by Gag. While it remains to be established whether this structure is conserved in the context of larger RNA constructs or in the dimer, this study serves as the basis for characterizing large RNA structures using novel NMR techniques, and as a major advance toward understanding how the HIV-1 gRNA is selectively packaged.
Keywords: HIV; NMR; RNA structure; psi; retroviral packaging.