To elucidate linkage between replication and encapsidation in Picornavirales, we have taken advantage of the bipartite nature of the plant-infecting member of the order, cowpea mosaic virus (CPMV), to decouple the two processes. RNA-free virus-like particles (eVLPs) can be generated by transiently co-expressing the RNA-2-encoded coat protein precursor (VP60) with the RNA-1-encoded 24K protease, in the absence of the replication machinery (Saunders et al., 2009). We have made use of the ability to produce assembled capsids of CPMV in the absence of replication to examine the putative linkage between RNA replication and packaging in the Picornavirales. We show here that the remarkable specificity of packaging observed in CPMV is due to a functional linking between the two processes of viral replication and encapsidation. We have created a series of mutant RNA-1 and RNA-2 molecules and have assessed the effect of the mutations on both the replication and packaging of the viral RNAs. We demonstrate that mutations that affect replication have a concomitant impact on encapsidation, and that RNA-1-mediated replication is required for encapsidation of both RNA-1 and RNA-2. This close coupling between replication and encapsidation provides a means for the specific packaging of viral RNAs. Moreover, we demonstrate that this feature of CPMV can be used to specifically encapsidate custom RNA by placing a sequence of choice between the RNA-2 sequences required for replication, which opens the door to novel research and therapeutic applications in the field of custom RNA packaging and delivery technologies.

  • This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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