Hepatitis B virus nucleocapsid assembly: primary structure requirements in the core protein.
As a step toward understanding the assembly of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) nucleocapsid at a molecular level, we sought to define the primary sequence requirements for assembly of the HBV core protein. This protein can self assemble upon expression in Escherichia coli. Applying this system to a series of C-terminally truncated core protein variants, we mapped the C-terminal limit for assembly to the region between amino acid residues 139 and 144. The size of this domain agrees well with the minimum length of RNA virus capsid proteins that fold into an eight-stranded beta-barrel structure. The entire Arg-rich C-terminal domain of the HBV core protein is not necessary for assembly. However, the nucleic acid content of particles formed by assembly-competent core protein variants correlates with the presence or absence of this region, as does particle stability. The nucleic acid found in the particles is RNA, between about 100 to some 3,000 nucleotides in length. In particles formed by the full-length protein, the core protein mRNA appears to be enriched over other, cellular RNAs. These data indicate that protein-protein interactions provided by the core protein domain from the N terminus to the region around amino acid 144 are the major factor in HBV capsid assembly, which proceeds without the need for substantial amounts of nucleic acid. The presence of the basic C terminus, however, greatly enhances encapsidation of nucleic acid and appears to make an important contribution to capsid stability via protein-nucleic acid interactions. The observation of low but detectable levels of nucleic acid in particles formed by core protein variants lacking the Arg-rich C terminus suggests the presence of a second nucleic acid-binding motif in the first 144 amino acids of the core protein. Based on these findings, the potential importance of the C-terminal core protein region during assembly in vivo into authentic, replication-competent nucleocapsids is discussed.