HIV-1 uncoating occurs via a series of rapid biomechanical changes in the core related to individual stages of reverse transcription

Sanela Rankovic, Akshay Deshpande, Shimon Harel, Christopher Aiken, Itay Rousso

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


The HIV core consists of the viral genome and associated proteins encased by a cone-shaped protein shell, termed the capsid. Successful infection requires reverse transcription of the viral genome and disassembly of the capsid shell within a cell in a process known as uncoating. The integrity of the viral capsid is critical for reverse transcription, yet the viral capsid must be breached to release the nascent viral DNA prior to integration. We employed atomic force microscopy to study the stiffness changes in HIV-1 cores during reverse transcription in vitro in reaction mixtures containing the capsid- stabilizing host metabolite IP6. Cores exhibited a series of stiffness spikes, with up to three spikes typically occurring between 10 to 30, 40 to 80, and 120 to 160 min after the initiation of reverse transcription. The addition of the reverse transcriptase (RT) inhibitor efavirenz eliminated the appearance of these spikes and the subsequent disassembly of the capsid, establishing that both result from reverse transcription. Using the timed addition of efavirenz and analysis of an RNase H-defective RT mutant, we established that the first stiffness spike requires minus-strand strong stop DNA synthesis, with subsequent spikes requiring later stages of reverse transcription. Additional rapid atomic force microscopy imaging experiments revealed repeated morphological changes in cores that were temporally correlated with the observed stiffness spikes. Our study reveals discrete mechanical changes in the viral core that are likely related to specific stages of reverse transcription. These reverse transcription-induced changes in the capsid progressively remodel the viral core to prime it for temporally accurate uncoating in target cells.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere00166-21
JournalJournal of Virology
Issue number10
StatePublished - 1 May 2021


  • Atomic force microscopy
  • Capsid
  • HIV-1
  • Mechanical properties
  • Reverse transcription
  • Stiffness
  • Uncoating

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Immunology
  • Insect Science
  • Virology


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