Face-time with TAR: Portraits of an HIV-1 RNA with diverse modes of effector recognition relevant for drug discovery [RNA]

May 12th, 2019 by Sai Shashank Chavali, Rachel Bonn-Breach, Joseph E. Wedekind

Small molecules and short peptides that potently and selectively bind RNA are rare, making the molecular structures of these complexes highly exceptional. Accordingly, several recent investigations have provided unprecedented structural insights into how peptides and proteins recognize the HIV-1 trans-activation response (TAR) element, a 59-nucleotide long, noncoding RNA segment in the 5'-long terminal repeat region of viral transcripts. Here we offer an integrated perspective on these advances by describing earlier progress on TAR-binding to small molecules, and by drawing parallels to recent successes in the identification of compounds that target the hepatitis C virus internal ribosome entry site (IRES) and the flavin-mononucleotide riboswitch. We relate this work to recent progress that pinpoints specific determinants of TAR recognition by: (i) viral Tat proteins, (ii) an innovative lab-evolved TAR-binding protein and (iii) an ultrahigh-affinity cyclic peptide. New structural details are used to model the TAR-Tat-super elongation complex (SEC) that is essential for efficient viral transcription and represents a focal point for antiviral drug design. A key prediction is that the Tat transactivation domain makes modest contacts with the TAR apical loop, whereas its arginine-rich motif (ARM) spans the entire length of the TAR major groove. This expansive interface has significant implications for drug discovery and design, and further suggests that future lab-evolved proteins could be deployed to discover steric restriction points that block Tat-mediated recruitment of the host SEC to HIV-1 TAR.