Dimerization is a unique and vital characteristic of retroviral genomes. It is commonly accepted that genomic RNA (gRNA) must be dimeric at the plasma membrane of the infected cells to be packaged during virus assembly. However, where, when and how HIV-1 gRNA find each other and dimerize in the cell are long-standing questions that cannot be answered using conventional approaches. Here, we combine two state-of-the-art, multicolor RNA labeling strategies with two single-molecule microscopy technologies to address these questions. We used 3D-super-resolution structured illumination microscopy to analyze and quantify the spatial gRNA association throughout the cell and monitored the dynamics of RNA-RNA complexes in living-cells by cross-correlation fluctuation analysis. These sensitive and complementary approaches, combined with trans-complementation experiments, reveal for the first time the presence of interacting gRNA in the cytosol, a challenging observation due to the low frequency of these events and their dilution among the bulk of other RNAs, and allow the determination of the subcellular orchestration of the HIV-1 dimerization process.
Imaging HIV-1 RNA dimerization in cells by multicolor super-resolution and fluctuation microscopies.