The hepatitis C virus non-structural protein 3 (NS3) possesses a serine protease activity in the N-terminal one-third, whereas RNA-stimulated NTPase and helicase activities reside in the C-terminal portion. In this study, an N-terminal hexahistidine-tagged full-length NS3 polypeptide was expressed in and purified to homogeneity by conventional chromatography. Detailed characterization of the helicase activity of NS3 is presented with regard to its binding and strand release activities on different RNA substrates. On RNA double-hybrid substrates, the enzyme was shown to perform unwinding activity starting from an internal ssRNA region of at least 3 nt and moving along the duplex in a 3′ to 5′ direction. In addition, data are presented suggesting that binding to ATP reduces the affinity of NS3 for ssRNA and increases its affinity for duplex RNA. Furthermore, we have ascertained the capacity of NS3 to specifically interact with and resolve the stem–loop RNA structure (SL I) within the 3′-terminal 46 bases of the viral genome. Finally, our analysis of NS3 processive unwinding under single cycle conditions by addition of heparin in both helicase and RNA-stimulated ATPase assays led to two conclusions: (i) NS3-associated helicase acts processively; (ii) most of the NS3 RNA-stimulated ATPase activity may not be directly coupled to translocation of the enzyme along the substrate RNA molecule.


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