To design anti-nucleocapsid drugs, it is useful to know the affinities the protein has for its natural substrates under physiological conditions. Dissociation equilibrium constants are reported for seven RNA stem-loops bound to the mature HIV-1 nucleocapsid protein, NCp7. The loops include SL1, SL2, SL3, and SL4 from the major packaging domain of genomic RNA. The binding assay is based on quenching the fluorescence of tryptophan-37 in the protein by G residues in the single-stranded loops. Tightly bound RNA molecules quench nearly all the fluorescence of freshly purified NCp7 in 0.2 M NaCl. In contrast, when the GGAG-tetraloop of tight-binding is replaced with UUCG or GAUA, quenching is almost nil, indicating very low affinity. Interpreting fluorescence titrations in terms of a rapidly equilibrating 1:1 complex explains nearly all of the experimental variance for the loops. Analyzed in this way, the highest affinities are for 20mer SL3 and 19mer SL2 hairpin constructs (Kd = 28 ± 3 and 23 ± 2 nM, respectively). The 20mer stem-UUCG-loop and GAUA-loop constructs have <0.5% of the affinity for NCp7 relative to SL3. Affinities relative to SL3 for the other stem-loops are the following: 10% for a 16mer construct to model SL4, 30% for a 27mer model of the 9-residue apical loop of SL1, and 20% for a 23mer model of a 1 × 3 asymmetric internal loop in SL1. A 154mer construct that includes all four stem-loops binds tightly to NCp7, with the equivalent of three NCp7 molecules bound with high affinity per RNA; it is also possible that two strong sites and several weaker ones combine to give the appearance of three strong sites.
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