Packaging signals in two single-stranded RNA viruses imply a conserved assembly mechanism and geometry of the packaged genome

Eric C Dykeman, Peter G Stockley, Reidun Twarock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The current paradigm for assembly of single-stranded RNA viruses is based on a mechanism involving non-sequence-specific packaging of genomic RNA driven by electrostatic interactions. Recent experiments, however, provide compelling evidence for sequence specificity in this process both in vitro and in vivo. The existence of multiple RNA packaging signals (PSs) within viral genomes has been proposed, which facilitates assembly by binding coat proteins in such a way that they promote the protein-protein contacts needed to build the capsid. The binding energy from these interactions enables the confinement or compaction of the genomic RNAs. Identifying the nature of such PSs is crucial for a full understanding of assembly, which is an as yet untapped potential drug target for this important class of pathogens. Here, for two related bacterial viruses, we determine the sequences and locations of their PSs using Hamiltonian paths, a concept from graph theory, in combination with bioinformatics and structural studies. Their PSs have a common secondary structure motif but distinct consensus sequences and positions within the respective genomes. Despite these differences, the distributions of PSs in both viruses imply defined conformations for the packaged RNA genomes in contact with the protein shell in the capsid, consistent with a recent asymmetric structure determination of the MS2 virion. The PS distributions identified moreover imply a preferred, evolutionarily conserved assembly pathway with respect to the RNA sequence with potentially profound implications for other single-stranded RNA viruses known to have RNA PSs, including many animal and human pathogens.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3235-3249
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Molecular Biology
Issue number17
Publication statusPublished - 9 Sept 2013

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