An Ultraviolet-Sensitive RNA Structural Element in a Viroid-Like Domain of the Hepatitis Delta Virus
The RNA genome of the hepatitis delta virus (HDV) appears to be made up of two parts: a small domain with a high degree of sequence conservation and structural features likely to promote replication; plus a second, larger domain that is less conserved and encodes the delta antigen. This report focuses on one of the several sets of data that have led to the proposal of this model: the existence of a novel structural element in HDV genomic RNA. This structural element lies within the highly conserved domain of HDV RNA and may be related to the local tertiary structure previously mapped to the central conserved region of the plant viroid genome. Both elements occur in regions with no apparent coding capacity and are distinctively responsive to ultraviolet (UV) light. Transcripts containing partial and full-length genomic sequences of HDV readily undergo a UV-induced crosslinking reaction, which establishes a covalent bond between two noncontiguous segments. By locking two segments of the overall structure into place, this crosslink has permitted the unbranched, rodlike model of HDV RNA to be examined and confirmed in the portion of the RNA analyzed. The clustering of the novel tertiary structure and the recently discovered self-cleavage sites into a highly conserved, but apparently noncoding, portion of the genome defines a viroid-like domain in HDV RNA and raises questions about the possible events leading up to the association of free-living RNAs with messenger RNAs and other RNA molecules.