SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein undergoes liquid-liquid phase separation stimulated by RNA and partitions into phases of human ribonucleoproteins
Tightly packed complexes of nucleocapsid protein and genomic RNA form the core of viruses and may assemble within viral factories, dynamic compartments formed within the host cells. Here, we examine the possibility that the multivalent RNA-binding nucleocapsid protein (N) from the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) compacts RNA via protein-RNA liquid-liquid phase separation (LLPS) and that N interactions with host RNA-binding proteins are mediated by phase separation. To this end, we created a construct expressing recombinant N fused to a N-terminal maltose binding protein tag which helps keep the oligomeric N soluble for purification. Using in vitro phase separation assays, we find that N is assembly-prone and phase separates avidly. Phase separation is modulated by addition of RNA and changes in pH and is disfavored at high concentrations of salt. Furthermore, N enters into in vitro phase separated condensates of full-length human hnRNPs (TDP-43, FUS, and hnRNPA2) and their low complexity domains (LCs). However, N partitioning into the LC of FUS, but not TDP-43 or hnRNPA2, requires cleavage of the solubilizing MBP fusion. Hence, LLPS may be an essential mechanism used for SARS-CoV-2 and other RNA viral genome packing and host protein co-opting, functions necessary for viral replication and hence infectivity. ### Competing Interest Statement N.L.F. is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of Dewpoint Therapeutics.
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