Our research focuses on mechanistic aspects of retroviral DNA integration. After entering the host cell, a DNA copy of the viral genome is made by reverse transcription. Integration of this viral DNA into a chromosome of the host cell is an essential step in the retroviral replication cycle.
The key player in the retroviral DNA integration process is the virally encoded integrase protein. Integrase processes the ends of the viral DNA and covalently inserts these processed ends into host DNA. We study the molecular mechanism of these reactions using biochemical, biophysical and structural techniques. Close collaborations with X-ray crystallography and NMR groups in NIDDK form an integral part of our research.
Cellular proteins play important accessory roles in the integration process. A focus of our research on cellular factors has been the mechanism that prevents integrase using the viral DNA as a target for integration. Such autointegration would result in destruction of the viral DNA. We have a identified a cellular protein, which we called barrier-to-autointegration factor (BAF) that prevents integration of the viral DNA into itself. BAF is a DNA bridging protein that bridges together segments of double stranded DNA. At high DNA concentration this would result in aggregation. However, at low DNA concentration, such as the few copies of viral DNA in the cytoplasm of an infected cell, the DNA bridging property of BAF results in intracellular compaction. Our model is that that compaction of the viral DNA by BAF makes it inaccessible as a target for integration.