Nat Commun . 2023 Jun 7;14(1):3331
The preference signature of the SARS-CoV-2 Nucleocapsid NTD for its 5’-genomic RNA elements
The nucleocapsid protein (N) of SARS-CoV-2 plays a pivotal role during the viral life cycle. It is involved in RNA transcription and accounts for packaging of the large genome into virus particles. N manages the enigmatic balance of bulk RNA-coating versus precise RNA-binding to designated cis-regulatory elements. Numerous studies report the involvement of its disordered segments in non-selective RNA-recognition, but how N organizes the inevitable recognition of specific motifs remains unanswered. We here use NMR spectroscopy to systematically analyze the interactions of N’s N-terminal RNA-binding domain (NTD) with individual cis RNA elements clustering in the SARS-CoV-2 regulatory 5′-genomic end. Supported by broad solution-based biophysical data, we unravel the NTD RNA-binding preferences in the natural genome context. We show that the domain’s flexible regions read the intrinsic signature of preferred RNA elements for selective and stable complex formation within the large pool of available motifs.