The mature nucleocapsid protein of HIV-1, NCp7, and the NC domains in gag precursors are attractive targets for anti-AIDS drug discovery. The stability of the 1:1 complex of NCp7 with a 20mer mimic of stem-loop 3 RNA (SL3, also called ψ-RNA, in the packaging domain of genomic RNA) is strongly affected by changes in ionic strength. NC domains recognize and specifically package genomic HIV-1 RNA, while electrostatic attractions and high concentrations of protein and RNA drive NCp7 to completely coat the RNA in the mature virion. The specific interactions of NCp7 binding to loop bases of SL3 produce 1:1 complexes in solutions that have a NaCl concentration of ≥0.2 M, while the electrostatic interactions can dominate at ≤0.15 M NaCl, leading to complexes that have a mainly 1:2 RNA:protein ratio. Persistent, nonequilibrium mixtures of 1:1 and protein-excess complexes can exist at these lower salt concentrations, where the distribution of complexes depends on the order of addition of RNA and protein. Adding salt causes rapid rearrangement of metastable multiprotein complexes to a 1:1 ratio. The stability of complexes is also affected by the nature of the added salt, with 0.018 M MgCl2 and added 0.200 M NaCl producing the same Kd (21 ± 2 nM); acetate ion stabilizes the 1:1 complex by a factor of more than 2 compared to the same concentration of chloride ion. Maintaining a salt concentration of 0.2 M NaCl or 18 mM MgCl2 is sufficient for experiments to distinguish drug candidates that disrupt the specific SL3-NCp7 interactions in the 1:1 complex.
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