Replication of hepatitis B virus (HBV) via protein-primed reverse transcription is initiated by binding of the viral P protein to the conserved ε stem-loop on the pregenomic (pg) RNA. This triggers encapsidation of the complex and the ε-templated synthesis of a short P protein-linked DNA oligonucleotide (priming) for subsequent minus-strand DNA extension. ε consists of a lower and upper stem, a bulge containing the priming template, and an apical loop. The nonhelical subelements are considered important for DNA synthesis and pgRNA packaging whereas the role of the upper stem is not well characterized. Priming itself could until recently not be addressed because in vitro generated HBV P - ε complexes showed no activity. Focussing on the four A residues at the base and tip of the upper ε stem and the two U residues in the loop we first investigated the impact of 24 mutations on viral DNA accumulation in transfected cells. While surprisingly many mutations were tolerated, further analyzing the negatively acting mutations, including in a new cell-free priming system, revealed divergent position-related impacts on pgRNA packaging, priming activity and possibly initiation site selection. This genetic separability implies that the ε RNA undergoes multiple distinct interactions with P protein as pgRNA encapsidation and replication initiation progress, and that the strict conservation of ε in nature may reflect its optimal adaptation to comply with all of them. The data further define the most attractive mutants for future studies, including as decoys for interference with HBV replication. © 2013 Feng et al.
Feng, H., Chen, P., Zhao, F., Nassal, M., & Hu, K. (2013). Evidence for Multiple Distinct Interactions between Hepatitis B Virus P Protein and Its Cognate RNA Encapsidation Signal during Initiation of Reverse Transcription. PLoS ONE, 8(8). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0072798