The human immune deficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) matrix protein p17 (p17), although devoid of a signal sequence, is released by infected cells and detected in blood and in different organs and tissues even in HIV-1-infected patients undergoing successful combined antiretroviral therapy (cART). Extracellularly, p17 deregulates the function of different cells involved in AIDS pathogenesis. The mechanism of p17 secretion, particularly during HIV-1 latency, still remains to be elucidated. A recent study showed that HIV-1-infected cells can produce Gag without spreading infection in a model of viral latency. Here we show that in Gag-expressing cells, secretion of biologically active p17 takes place at the plasma membrane and occurs following its interaction with phosphatidylinositol-(4,5)-bisphosphate and its subsequent cleavage from the precursor Gag (Pr55Gag) operated by cellular aspartyl proteases. These enzymes operate a more complex Gag polypeptide proteolysis than the HIV-1 protease, thus hypothetically generating slightly truncated or elongated p17s in their C-terminus. A 17 C-terminal residues excised p17 was found to be structurally and functionally identical to the full-length p17 demonstrating that the final C-terminal region of p17 is irrelevant for the protein's biological activity. These findings offer new opportunities to identify treatment strategies for inhibiting p17 release in the extracellular microenvironment.
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