The C-terminal region of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) reverse transcriptase (RT) contains the domain responsible for RNase H activity. To determine the importance of this RNase H domain, specific changes in the C-terminal region of a recombinant RT expressed in were introduced by amino acid substitutions and specific deletions. The enzyme activities of purified wild-type and mutant RT/RNase H proteins, standardized for protein content, were compared by filter assays and thermal inactivation kinetics. A point mutation of His 539 → Asn produced an enzyme with a marked thermolabile RNase H function (nine-fold increase in inactivation), whereas RT function was only marginally more labile than that of the wild-type (two-fold). A second mutation, His 539 → Asp, impaired both enzyme activities to a similar degree (four- to five-fold). A C-terminal deletion of 19 amino acids (aa) (aa 540 to 558) and a C-terminal truncation of 21 aa (aa 540 to 560) reduced RT as well as RNase H activity. A 130 aa deletion enzyme exhibited no RNase H activity and insufficient RT activity to allow inactivation studies. Two mutants, the 19 aa deletion and His → Asn, were introduced into proviral HIV-1 DNA clones to determine whether changes in enzyme activity, particularly RNase H activity, affected virus infectivity. Both mutants were non-infectious, indicating that the C-terminal 19 to 21 amino acids and His 539 of the RT/RNase H protein are essential for HIV replication. These results are consistent with the assumption that RNase H is essential for the infectivity of HIV-1.


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