The Gag protein is the main retroviral structural protein, and its expression alone is usually sufficient for production of viruslike particles (VLPs). In this study, we sought to investigate-in parallel comparative analyses-Gag cellular distribution, VLP size, and basic morphological features using Gag expression constructs (Gag or Gag-YFP, where YFP is yellow fluorescent protein) created from all representative retroviral genera: Alpharetrovirus, Betaretrovirus, Deltaretrovirus, Epsilonretrovirus, Gammaretrovirus, Lentivirus, and Spumavirus. We analyzed Gag cellular distribution by confocal microscopy, VLP budding by thinsection transmission electron microscopy (TEM), and general morphological features of the VLPs by cryogenic transmission electron microscopy (cryo-TEM). Punctate Gag was observed near the plasma membrane for all Gag constructs tested except for the representative Beta- and Epsilonretrovirus Gag proteins. This is the first report of Epsilonretrovirus Gag localizing to the nucleus of HeLa cells. While VLPs were not produced by the representative Beta- and Epsilonretrovirus Gag proteins, the other Gag proteins produced VLPs as confirmed by TEM, and morphological differences were observed by cryo-TEM. In particular, we observed Deltaretrovirus-like particles with flat regions of electron density that did not follow viral membrane curvature, Lentivirus- like particles with a narrow range and consistent electron density, suggesting a tightly packed Gag lattice, and Spumaviruslike particles with large envelope protein spikes and no visible electron density associated with a Gag lattice. Taken together, these parallel comparative analyses demonstrate for the first time the distinct morphological features that exist among retrovirus- like particles. Investigation of these differences will provide greater insights into the retroviral assembly pathway.
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