The carboxyl terminus of the human foamy virus Gag protein contains separable nucleic acid binding and nuclear transport domains.
The Gag protein of human foamy virus (HFV) lacks Cys-His boxes present in the nucleocapsid (NC) domains of other retroviruses; instead it contains three glycine-arginine-rich motifs (GR boxes). We have expressed the carboxyl end of HFV Gag containing the GR boxes (the NC domain equivalent) and analyzed its nucleic acid binding properties. Our results show that the NC domain of HFV Gag binds with high affinity to both RNA and DNA, in a sequence-independent manner, as determined by filter binding assays. Analysis of a mutant containing a heterologous sequence in place of GR box I indicates that this motif is required for nucleic acid binding and for viral replication. A mutant in GR box II still binds to RNA and DNA in vitro, but virus containing this mutation does not replicate and no nuclear staining of the Gag protein is found in transfected cells. Surprisingly, a revertant from this mutant that completely lacks GR box II and exhibits very little nuclear transport of Gag can readily replicate in tissue culture. This finding thus provides a direct evidence that although the sequences in GR box II can serve as a nuclear transport signal, they are not required for HFV replication and it is unlikely that nuclear localization of Gag protein plays any critical role during viral infection. Taken together, our results suggest that the Gag protein of HFV may be more analogous to the core protein of the hepatitis B virus family than to conventional retroviral Gag protein.