The binding of the R17 coat protein to synthetic RNAs containing one or two coat protein binding sites was characterized by using nitrocellulose filter and gel-retention assays. RNAs with two available sites bound coat protein in a cooperative manner, resulting in a higher affinity and reduced sensitivity to pH, ionic strength, and temperature when compared with RNAs containing only a single site. The cooperativity can contribute up to -5 kcal/mol to the overall binding affinity with the greatest cooperativity found at low pH, high ionic strength, and high temperatures. Similar solution properties for the encapsulation of the related fr and f2 phage suggest that the cooperativity is due to favorable interactions between the two coat proteins bound to the RNA. This system therefore resembles an intermediate state of phage assembly. No cooperative binding was observed for RNAs containing a single site and a 5′ or 3′ extension of nonspecific sequence, indicating that R17 coat protein has a very low nonspecific binding affinity. Unexpectedly weak binding was observed for several RNAs due to the presence of alternative conformational states of the RNA.
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