A unique feature of retroviruses is that two copies of the genomic RNA are packaged in each particle. The selective encapsidation of viral genomes is ensured by the binding of the Nucleocapsid to a specific motif on the RNA genome, the packaging signal (Psi). The Psi regions of many retroviruses overlap with sequences that promote the dimerisation of the genome, the dimerisation initiation site (DIS), and it has been suggested that the two mechanisms are closely linked.
The aim of the research presented herein was to identify the sequences and structural elements required for the dimerisation of HIV-2 genomic RNA and to investigate the relationship between HIV-2 genome dimerisation and encapsidation, infectivity and particle morphogenesis.
Mutations of two palindromic sequences, introduced in an infectious molecular clone of the HIV-2<sub>rod</sub> isolate, revealed that a palindrome within HIV-2 Psi was important for genome dimerisation. In contrast with previous studies, the palindrome termed DIS is not required for genome dimerisation and viral replication.
Viruses bearing mutations within the Psi region failed to dimerise and to replicate in T-cells, a defect that could not be rescued by targeting more genomes to the cells. Psi-deleted viruses also displayed a defect in particle morphogenesis. A reduced packaging efficiency, combined with the presence of RNA monomers or unstable dimers in these virions, resulted in the production of fewer mature particles. However an increase in the number of particles containing two cores was observed.
Further characterisation of the sequences and structural elements required for RNA dimerisation, packaging and viral replication showed that the formation of stem B is not critical for viral replication. However, a GGAG purine-rich motif at position 392-395 of the HIV-2<sub>rod</sub> genome is absolutely essential for genome dimerisation and viral infectivity, and a correlation was observed between dimer formation and viral replication.