The gp41 envelope protein of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) contains an α-helical core structure responsible for mediating membrane fusion during viral entry. Recent studies suggest that a conserved hydrophobic cavity in the coiled coil of this core plays a distinctive structural role in maintaining the fusogenic conformation of the gp41 molecule. Here we investigated the importance of this cavity in determining the structure and biological activity of the gp41 core by using the N34(L6)C28 model. The high-resolution crystal structures of N34(L6)C28 of two HIV-1 gp41 fusion-defective mutants reveal that each mutant sequence is accommodated in the six-helix bundle structure by forming the cavity with different sets of atoms. Remarkably, the mutant N34(L6)C28 cores are highly effective inhibitors of HIV-1 infection, with 5- to 16-fold greater activity than the wild-type molecule. The enhanced inhibitory activity by fusion-defective mutations correlates with local structural perturbations close to the cavity that destabilize the six-helix bundle. Taken together, these results indicate that the conserved hydrophobic coiled-coil cavity in the gp41 core is critical for HIV-1 entry and its inhibition and provides a potential antiviral drug target
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