Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a positive-sense RNA virus that interacts with the liver-specific microRNA, miR-122. miR-122 binds to two sites in the 5′ untranslated region (UTR) and this interaction promotes HCV RNA accumulation, although the precise role of miR-122 in the HCV life cycle remains unclear. Using biophysical analyses and Selective 2′ Hydroxyl Acylation analyzed by Primer Extension (SHAPE) we investigated miR-122 interactions with the 5′ UTR. Our data suggests that miR-122 binding results in alteration of nucleotides 1-117 to suppress an alternative secondary structure and promote functional internal ribosomal entry site (IRES) formation. Furthermore, we demonstrate that two hAgo2:miR-122 complexes are able to bind to the HCV 5′ terminus simultaneously and SHAPE analyses revealed further alterations to the structure of the 5′ UTR to accommodate these complexes. Finally, we present a computational model of the hAgo2:miR-122:HCV RNA complex at the 5′ terminus of the viral genome as well as hAgo2:miR-122 interactions with the IRES-40S complex that suggest hAgo2 is likely to form additional interactions with SLII which may further stabilize the HCV IRES. Taken together, our results support a model whereby hAgo2:miR-122 complexes alter the structure of the viral 5′ terminus and promote formation of the HCV IRES.
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