Evidence is accumulating that retroviruses can produce microRNAs (miRNAs). To prevent cleavage of their RNA genome, retroviruses have to use an alternative RNA source as miRNA precursor. The transacting responsive (TAR) hairpin structure in HIV-1 RNA has been suggested as source for miRNAs, but how these small RNAs are produced without impeding virus replication remained unclear. We used deep sequencing analysis of AGO2-bound HIV-1 RNAs to demonstrate that the 3' side of the TAR hairpin is processed into a miRNA-like small RNA. This ∼21 nt RNA product is able to repress the expression of mRNAs bearing a complementary target sequence. Analysis of the small RNAs produced by wild-type and mutant HIV-1 variants revealed that non-processive transcription from the HIV-1 LTR promoter results in the production of short TAR RNAs that serve as precursor. These TAR RNAs are cleaved by Dicer and processing is stimulated by the viral Tat protein. This biogenesis pathway differs from the canonical miRNA pathway and allows HIV-1 to produce the TAR-encoded miRNA-like molecule without cleavage of the RNA genome.
© The Author(s) 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Nucleic Acids Research.