Background: Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) is the causative agent of AIDS and the subject of intense study. The immature HIV-1 particle is traditionally described as having a well ordered, icosahedral structure made up of uncleaved Gag protein surrounded by a lipid bilayer containing envelope proteins. Expression of the Gag protein in eukaryotic cells leads to the budding of membranous virus-like particles (VLPs).
Results: We have used cryo-electron microscopy of VLPs from insect cells and lightly fixed, immature HIV-1 particles from human lymphocytes to determine their organization. Both types of particle were heterogeneous in size, varying in diameter from 1200-2600 A. Larger particles appeared to be broken into semi-spherical sectors, each having a radius of curvature of approximately 750 A. No evidence of icosahedral symmetry was found, but local order was evidenced by small arrays of Gag protein that formed facets within the curved sectors. A consistent 270 A radial density was seen, which included a 70 A wide low density feature corresponding to the carboxy-terminal portion of the membrane attached matrix protein and the amino-terminal portion of the capsid protein.
Conclusions: Immature HIV-1 particles and VLPs both have a multi-sector structure characterized, not by an icosahedral organization, but by local order in which the structures of the matrix and capsid regions of Gag change upon cleavage. We propose a model in which lateral interactions between Gag protein molecules yields arrays that are organized into sectors for budding by RNA.