During assembly, double-stranded DNA viruses, including bacteriophages and herpesviruses, utilize a powerful molecular motor to package their genomic DNA into a preformed viral capsid. An integral component of the packaging motor in the Bacillus subtilis bacteriophage φ29 is a viral genome-encoded pentameric ring of RNA (prohead RNA [pRNA]). pRNA is a 174-base transcript comprised of two domains, domains I and II. Early studies initially isolated a 120-base form (domain I only) that retains high biological activity in vitro; hence, no function could be assigned to domain II. Here we define a role for this domain in the packaging process. DNA packaging using restriction digests of φ29 DNA showed that motors with the 174-base pRNA supported the correct polarity of DNA packaging, selectively packaging the DNA left end. In contrast, motors containing the 120-base pRNA had compromised specificity, packaging both left- and right-end fragments. The presence of domain II also provides selectivity in competition assays with genomes from related phages. Furthermore, motors with the 174-base pRNA were restrictive, in that they packaged only one DNA fragment into the head, whereas motors with the 120-base pRNA packaged several fragments into the head, indicating multiple initiation events. These results show that domain II imparts specificity and stringency to the motor during the packaging initiation events that precede DNA translocation. Heteromeric rings of pRNA demonstrated that one or two copies of domain II were sufficient to impart this selectivity/stringency. Although φ29 differs from other doublestranded DNA phages in having an RNA motor component, the function provided by pRNA is carried on the motor protein components in other phages.
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© 2015, American Society for Microbiology.