Rex protein of human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 (HTLV-1) induces cytoplasmic expression of unspliced gag/pol mRNA and singly spliced env mRNA and thus is essential for replication of the virus. This regulation requires a cis-acting rex-responsive element (RXE), located in the 3' region of the viral RNA. By external deletion, we have identified RXE composed of 205 nucleotides. The secondary structure of RXE was confirmed by studies on its susceptibility to nuclease digestions to consist of four stem-loops and a long stretch of stem structure. Substitution and deletion mutations revealed that two regions of the stem-loops and their secondary structures are essential for rex regulation. Similar secondary structures were found in the corresponding regions of HTLV-2, bovine leukemia virus and human immunodeficiency virus. Furthermore, a sequence of 11 nucleotides in the RXE was found to be conserved in the secondary structures of HTLV-1, HTLV-2, and bovine leukemia virus. These observations suggest that the secondary structure as well as the conserved sequence may be important in expression of unspliced RNA even with diverged sequences as observed in these viruses
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