The human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) gene product Pr55 self-assembles to form virus-like particles when expressed in cells using recombinant baculoviruses. The particles resemble immature HIV and are released from the infected cell into the culture medium. Using this system we have progressively truncated the open reading frame from the C terminus and examined each deleted gag protein for its particle-producing capability. We show that deletion of Pr6 and deletions that progressively remove the distal region of the Pr7 domain, including one Cys-His box thought to function as an RNA capture signal, do not affect particle formation. However deletion of two Cys-His boxes causes production of slightly larger particles with altered sedimentation properties. Sequence-specific North-Western assays using an RNA probe representative of the HIV-1 packaging signal revealed specific RNA binding by all mutants that maintained both Cys-His boxes. However, deletion of one Cys-His box reduced RNA binding substantially and loss of two Cys-His boxes abolished binding entirely. We conclude that HIV-1 gag particle formation does not require viral RNA encapsidation, but that it may act as a cofactor in the condensation of the immature core. Further deletion of gag sequences upstream of the Cys-His boxes led to the abolition of particle-forming ability, and we show that one boundary of the gag sequence necessary for particle formation lies within eight amino acids spanning one of the known protease cleavage sites at the C terminus of Pr24.


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