In addition to its well-documented role in integration of the viral genome, the HIV-1 enzyme IN (integrase) is thought to be involved in the preceding step of importing the viral cDNA into the nucleus. The ability of HIV to transport its cDNA through an intact nuclear envelope allows HIV-1 to infect non-dividing cells, which is thought to be crucial for the persistent nature of HIV/AIDS. Despite this, the mechanism utilized by HIV-1 to import its cDNA into the nucleus, and the viral proteins involved, remains ill-defined. In the present study we utilize in vitro techniques to assess the nuclear import properties of the IN protein, and show that IN interacts with members of the Imp (Importin) family of nuclear transport proteins with high affinity and exhibits rapid nuclear accumulation within an in vitro assay, indicating that IN possesses potent nucleophilic potential. IN nuclear import appears to be dependent on the Imp α/β heterodimer and Ran GTP (Ran in its GTP-bound state), but does not require ATP. Importantly, we show that IN is capable of binding DNA and facilitating its import into the nucleus of semi-intact cells via a process that involves basic residues within amino acids 186–188 of IN. These results confirm IN as an efficient mediator of DNA nuclear import in vitro and imply the potential for IN to fulfil such a role in vivo. These results may not only aid in highlighting potential therapeutic targets for impeding the progression of HIV/AIDS, but may also be relevant for non-viral gene delivery.

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