A distance constrained secondary structural model of the ≈10 kb RNA genome of the HIV-1 has been predicted but higher-order structures, involving long distance interactions, are currently unknown. We present the first global RNA secondary structure model for the HIV-1 genome, which integrates both comparative structure analysis and information from experimental data in a full-length prediction without distance constraints. Besides recovering known structural elements, we predict several novel structural elements that are conserved in HIV-1 evolution. Our results also indicate that the structure of the HIV-1 genome is highly variable in most regions, with a limited number of stable and conserved RNA secondary structures. Most interesting, a set of long distance interactions form a core organizing structure (COS) that organize the genome into three major structural domains. Despite overlapping protein-coding regions the COS is supported by a particular high frequency of compensatory base changes, suggesting functional importance for this element. This new structural element potentially organizes the whole genome into three major domains protruding from a conserved core structure with potential roles in replication and evolution for the virus.
© The Author(s) 2015. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Nucleic Acids Research.