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tRNA elements mediate the assembly of an icosahedral RNA virus


tRNAs, the adapter molecules in protein synthesis, also serve as metabolic cofactors and as primers for viral RNA-directed DNA synthesis. The genomic and subgenomic RNAs of some plant viruses have a 3'-terminal tRNA-like structure (TLS) that can accept a specific amino acid and serve as a site for initiation of replication and as a simple telomere. We report a previously undescribed role for the TLS of brome mosaic virus (BMV), and potentially for cellular tRNA, in mediating the assembly of its icosahedral virions. BMV genomic RNAs and subgenomic RNA lacking the TLS failed to assemble into virions when incubated with purified BMV coat protein. Assembly was restored by addition of a 201-nt RNA containing the BMV TLS. TLSs from two other plant viruses as well as tRNAs from wheat germ and yeast were similarly active in the BMV virion assembly reaction, but ribosomal RNA and polyadenylate did not facilitate assembly. Surprisingly, virions assembled from TLS-less BMV RNA in the presence of tRNAs or TLS-containing short RNA did not incorporate the latter molecules. Consistent with a critical role for the BMV TLS in virion assembly, mutations in the BMV genomic RNAs that were designed to disrupt the folding of the TLS also abolished virion assembly. We discuss the likely roles of the TLS in early stages of virion assembly.

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