RNA: packaged and protected by VLPs†
Virus Like Particles (VLPs) are devices for RNA packaging, protection and delivery, with utility in fundamental research, drug discovery, and disease treatment. Using E. coli for combined expression and packaging of non-viral RNAs into Qβ VLPs, we investigated the extent of chemical protection conferred by packaging of RNA in VLPs. We also probed relationships between packaging efficiency and RNA size, sequence and intrinsic compaction. We observe that VLP packaging protects RNA against assault by small diffusible damaging agents such as hydroxyl radicals and divalent cations. By contrast, the extent of unmediated cleavage, in the absence of reactive species, is the same for RNA that is free or packaged within VLPs, and is very slow. In vivo packaging of RNA within VLPs appears to be more efficient for intrinsically compact RNAs, such as rRNA, and less efficient for unstructured, elongated RNA such as mRNA. Packaging efficiency is reduced by addition of the ribosome binding site to a target RNA. The Qβ hairpin is necessary but not sufficient for efficient packaging.