Integrative structural biology studies of HIV-1 reverse transcriptase binding to a high-affinity DNA aptamer

Curr Res Struct Biol. 2020:2:116-129. doi: 10.1016/j.crstbi.2020.06.002. Epub 2020 Jun 30.


The high-resolution crystal structure of HIV-1 reverse transcriptase (RT) bound to a 38-mer DNA hairpin aptamer with low pM affinity was previously described. The high-affinity binding aptamer contained 2'-O-methyl modifications and a seven base-pair GC-rich tract and the structure of the RT-aptamer complex revealed specific contacts between RT and the template strand of the aptamer. Similar to all crystal structures of RT bound to nucleic acid template-primers, the aptamer bound RT with a bend in the duplex DNA. To understand the structural basis for the ultra-high-affinity aptamer binding, an integrative structural biology approach was used. Hydrogen-deuterium exchange coupled to liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (HDX-MS) was used to examine the structural dynamics of RT alone and in the presence of the DNA aptamer. RT was selectively labeled with 15N to unambiguously identify peptides from each subunit. HDX of unliganded RT shows a mostly stable core. The p66 fingers and thumb subdomains, and the RNase H domain are relatively dynamic. HDX indicates that both the aptamer and a scrambled version significantly stabilize regions of RT that are dynamic in the absence of DNA. No substantial differences in RT dynamics are observed between aptamer and scrambled aptamer binding, despite a large difference in binding affinity. Small-angle X-ray scattering and circular dichroism spectroscopy were used to investigate the aptamer conformation in solution and revealed a pre-bent DNA that possesses both A- and B-form helical character. Both the 2'-O-methyl modifications and the GC tract appear to contribute to an energetically favorable conformation for binding to RT that contributes to the aptamer's ultra-high affinity for RT. The X-ray structure of RT with an RNA/DNA version of the aptamer at 2.8 Å resolution revealed a potential role of the hairpin positioning in affinity. Together, the data suggest that both the 2'-O-methyl modifications and the GC tract contribute to an energetically favorable conformation for high-affinity binding to RT.

Keywords: HDX-MS high-Affinity DNA aptamer; HIV-1 reverse transcriptase; Integrative structural biology; SELEX; Subunit-specific 15N-labeling.