Plant pararetroviruses, such as caulimoviruses, and animal retroviruses have in common the presence of a highly conserved arrangement of cysteines and a histidine in the precursor of the capsid protein. The composition of these amino acids resembles a zinc finger element, a structure that is common to a class of eukaryotic proteins that regulate gene expression. The role of the putative zinc finger in the life-cycle of caulimoviruses was investigated by introducing specific mutations in the coat protein coding region of a cloned and infectious form of figwort mosaic virus, a caulimovirus. This mutated viral genome, which no longer encoded the conserved cysteine and histidine residues, was not infectious in plants. Transient expression assays in protoplasts showed that expression of a reporter gene inserted at different places in the genome was not detectably influenced by the coat protein or its putative zinc finger. It appears that the zinc finger-like element of caulimoviruses is not involved in the regulation of gene expression. These observations support a model which predicts a function of the zinc finger in specific recognition and packaging of viral RNA into virions prior to reverse transcription.


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