Background: HIV-1 reverse transcriptase (RT) catalyzes the transformation of single-stranded viral RNA into double-stranded DNA, which is integrated into host cell chromosomes. The molecule is a heterodimer of two subunits, p51 and p66. The amino acid sequence of p51 is identical to the sequence of the amino-terminal subdomains of p66. Earlier crystallographic studies indicate that the RT molecule is flexible, which may explain the difficulty in obtaining high-resolution data for the intact protein. We have therefore determined the structure of a fragment of RT (RT216), which contains only the amino-terminal half of the RT molecule ('finger' and 'palm' subdomains).
Results: The crystal structure of RT216 has been refined at 2.2 A resolution to a crystallographic R-value of 20.8%. The structure is very similar to that of the corresponding part of the p66 subunit in the p66/p51 heterodimer, although there is a small difference in the relative orientation of the two subdomains compared with the structure of an RT-DNA-antibody fragment complex. There are a large number of stabilizing contacts (mainly hydrogen bonds and hydrophobic interactions) between the subdomains. The locations of conserved amino acids and the position of some important drug-resistant mutations are described.
Conclusions: The RT216 structure provides detailed three-dimensional information of one important part of HIV-1 RT (including the critical active site residues). We propose a model to explain the inhibitory effect of non-nucleoside inhibitors, which partially accounts for their effect in terms of conformational changes of active site residues.