Hepatitis B virus nuclear export elements: RNA stem-loop α and β, key parts of the HBV post-transcriptional regulatory element

2016-08-05T15:12:01Z (GMT) by Chun Shen Lim Chris M. Brown

Many viruses contain RNA elements that modulate splicing and/or promote nuclear export of their RNAs. The RNAs of the major human pathogen, hepatitis B virus (HBV) contain a large (~600 bases) composite cis-acting 'post-transcriptional regulatory element' (PRE). This element promotes expression from these naturally intronless transcripts. Indeed, the related woodchuck hepadnavirus PRE (WPRE) is used to enhance expression in gene therapy and other expression vectors. These PRE are likely to act through a combination of mechanisms, including promotion of RNA nuclear export. Functional components of both the HBV PRE and WPRE are 2 conserved RNA cis-acting stem-loop (SL) structures, SLα and SLβ. They are within the coding regions of polymerase (P) gene, and both P and X genes, respectively. Based on previous studies using mutagenesis and/or nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), here we propose 2 covariance models for SLα and SLβ. The model for the 30-nucleotide SLα contains a G-bulge and a CNGG(U) apical loop of which the first and the fourth loop residues form a CG pair and the fifth loop residue is bulged out, as observed in the NMR structure. The model for the 23-nucleotide SLβ contains a 7-base-pair stem and a 9-nucleotide loop. Comparison of the models with other RNA structural elements, as well as similarity searches of human transcriptome and viral genomes demonstrate that SLα and SLβ are specific to HBV transcripts. However, they are well conserved among the hepadnaviruses of non-human primates, the woodchuck and ground squirrel.