The Journal of biological chemistry 2017 11 09() pii 10.1074/jbc.M117.798256
HIV-1 reverse transcriptase (HIV-1 RT) possesses both DNA polymerase activity and RNase H activity that act in concert to convert single-stranded RNA of the viral genome to double-stranded DNA that is then integrated into the DNA of the infected cell. Reverse transcriptase-catalyzed reverse transcription critically relies on the proper generation of a polypurine tract (PPT) primer. However, the mechanism of PPT primer generation and the features of the PPT sequence that are critical for its recognition by HIV-1 RT remain unclear. Here, we used a chemical crosslinking method together with MD simulations and single-molecule assays to study the mechanism of PPT primer generation. We found that the PPT was specifically and properly recognized within covalently tethered HIV-1 RT-nucleic acid complexes. These findings indicated that recognition of the PPT occurs within a stable catalytic complex after its formation. We found that this unique recognition is based on two complementary elements that rely on the PPT sequence: RNase H sequence preference and incompatibility of the poly-rA/dT tract of the PPT with the nucleic acid conformation that is required for RNase H cleavage. The latter results from rigidity of the poly-rA/dT tract and leads to base-pair slippage of this sequence upon deformation into a catalytically relevant geometry. In summary, our results reveal an unexpected mechanism of PPT primer generation based on specific dynamic properties of the polyrA/dT segment and help advance our understanding of the mechanisms in viral RNA reverse transcription.