Charge neutralization as the major factor for the assembly of nucleocapsid-like particles from C-terminal truncated hepatitis C virus core protein.
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Hepatitis C virus (HCV) core protein, in addition to its structural role to form the nucleocapsid assembly, plays a critical role in HCV pathogenesis by interfering in several cellular processes, including microRNA and mRNA homeostasis. The C-terminal truncated HCV core protein (C124) is intrinsically unstructured in solution and is able to interact with unspecific nucleic acids, in the micromolar range, and to assemble into nucleocapsid-like particles (NLPs) in vitro. The specificity and propensity of C124 to the assembly and its implications on HCV pathogenesis are not well understood.Spectroscopic techniques, transmission electron microscopy and calorimetry were used to better understand the propensity of C124 to fold or to multimerize into NLPs when subjected to different conditions or in the presence of unspecific nucleic acids of equivalent size to cellular microRNAs.The structural analysis indicated that C124 has low propensity to self-folding. On the other hand, for the first time, we show that C124, in the absence of nucleic acids, multimerizes into empty NLPs when subjected to a pH close to its isoelectric point (pH ≈ 12), indicating that assembly is mainly driven by charge neutralization. Isothermal calorimetry data showed that the assembly of NLPs promoted by nucleic acids is enthalpy driven. Additionally, data obtained from fluorescence correlation spectroscopy show that C124, in nanomolar range, was able to interact and to sequester a large number of short unspecific nucleic acids into NLPs.Together, our data showed that the charge neutralization is the major factor for the nucleocapsid-like particles assembly from C-terminal truncated HCV core protein. This finding suggests that HCV core protein may physically interact with unspecific cellular polyanions, which may correspond to microRNAs and mRNAs in a host cell infected by HCV, triggering their confinement into infectious particles.