A three-helix junction is the interface between two functional domains of prohead RNA in φ29 DNA packaging

Wei Zhao, Mitul Saha, Ailong Ke, Marc C. Morais, Paul J. Jardine, Shelley Grimes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


The double-stranded-DNA bacteriophages employ powerful molecular motors to translocate genomic DNA into preformed capsids during the packaging step in phage assembly. Bacillus subtilis bacteriophage φ29 has an oligomeric prohead RNA (pRNA)that is an essential component of its packaging motor. The crystal structure of the pRNA-prohead binding domain suggested that a three-helix junction constitutes both a flexible region and part of a rigid RNA superhelix. Here we definethe functional role of the three-helix junction in motor assembly and DNA packaging. Deletion mutagenesis showed thata U-rich region comprising two sides of the junction plays a role in the stable assembly of pRNA to the prohead. The retention of at least two bulged residues in this region was essential for pRNA binding and thereby subsequent DNA packaging.Additional deletions resulted in the loss of the ability of pRNA to multimerize in solution, consistent with the hypothesis that this region provides the flexibility required for pRNA oligomerization and prohead binding. The third side ofthe junction is part of a large RNA superhelix that spans the motor. The insertion of bases into this feature resulted ina loss of DNA packaging and an impairment of initiation complex assembly. Additionally, cryo-electron microscopy (cryoEM) analysis of third-side insertion mutants showed an increased flexibility of the helix that binds the ATPase, suggesting that the rigidity of the RNA superhelix is necessary for efficient motor assembly and function. These results highlight the critical role of the three-way junction in bridging the prohead binding and ATPase assembly functions of pRNA.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11625-11632
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of virology
Issue number21
StatePublished - Nov 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Immunology
  • Insect Science
  • Virology


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