The Conserved Positive Charge in the Transmembrane Domain of HIV Gp41 Contributes to Its Intrinsic Preference for Trimerization

The transmembrane (TM) domain of HIV glycoprotein gp41 anchors the envelope (Env) spike in the viral membrane and is highly conserved. The mid-span arginine 696 is particularly conserved, and the only other residue found in this position is lysine. Seeking to examine the role of this conserved positive charge in the structure and function of the gp41 TM domain, we synthesized a series of peptides corresponding to this region. Analysis of the peptides in a previously validated fluorescence assay in model membranes showed that the native TM domain is trimeric. Peptides in which the intramembrane arginine was mutated to alanine showed significantly lower trimerization propensity. In contrast, this mutation in the context of infectious pseudovirus caused only modest decreases in viral stability and infectivity. We propose a model to explain the importance of this charge to gp41 structure and to HIV infection.