Based on structural analyses and on the behavior of mutants, we suggest that the polymerase domain of HIV-1 reverse transcriptase (RT) plays a critical role in holding and appropriately positioning the template-primer both at the polymerase active site and at the RNase H active site. For RT to successfully copy the viral RNA genome, RNase H must cleave the RNA with absolute precision. We believe that a combination of the structure of the template-primer and its precise positioning are responsible for the specific cleavages RNase H makes. We have proposed that resistance of HIV-1 RT to nucleoside analogs involves a subtle repositioning of the template-primer. This hypothesis is based on both structural and biochemical analyses. Mutations that confer resistance to nucleoside analogs do not cluster at the polymerase active site; however, they are in positions where they could alter the interaction between RT and the template-primer. If, as we have hypothesized, the polymerase domain is primarily responsible for positioning the template-primer and RNase H cleavage depends on this positioning, it should be possible to use RNase H cleavage to monitor at least some of the major changes in the position of the template-primer. We have used three assays (polymerase, RNase H, and strand transfer) to investigate the effects of mutations in the polymerase domain, including mutations that confer resistance to nucleotide analogs, on HIV-1 RT. All three assays involve RNA sequences derived from the viral genome. The data show that alterations in the polymerase domain, in particular, mutations that are in positions that would be expected to alter the interaction of RT with the template-primer, can alter both the efficiency and specificity of RNase H cleavage. These results are discussed in light of the structure of HIV-1 RT.
Copyright 1998 Academic Press Limited.