Background: Reverse transcriptase (RT) from HIV-1 is responsible for replicating the single-stranded RNA genome to double-stranded DNA. The three-dimensional structure of RT shows that it is a strikingly asymmetric heterodimer consisting of two differently folded subunits (molecular weights 66 kDa and 51 kDa) with identical amino-terminal amino acid sequences (residues 1-428). The large active site cleft is composed of subdomains named 'finger', 'palm' and 'thumb'. There is also an RNAse H domain.
Results: We have compared four RT structures. The structures of two independent RT heterodimers comprising the asymmetric unit of an orthorhombic crystal form have been determined by molecular replacement and are noticeably different from each other. Comparison of the molecules in this crystal form with the two previously reported RT structures shows a related pattern of variations in relative sub domain positions. The structural differences can be described as a molecular twist between the polymerase active site located on the finger and palm domains of p66 and the rest of the molecule. This twist occurs around an axis which runs from the p66 palm domain through the p66/p51 connection domain interface and which exits below the RNAse H domain.
Conclusions: From the differences in the four RT structures we infer that the molecule has a specific flexibility that allows rotation of the polymerase active site relative to the rest of the molecule. The observed swivelling motion of RT may allow the polymerase to accommodate the rotational and translational movements of the growing nucleic acid duplex, which present an especial problem for RT because it uses an asymmetric molecule (tRNA(Ly3)) as a primer for first strand synthesis.