A Quantitative Approach to Evaluate the Impact of Fluorescent Labeling on Membrane-Bound HIV-Gag Assembly by Titration of Unlabeled Proteins
The assembly process of the human immunodeficiency virus 1 (HIV-1) is driven by the viral polyprotein Gag. Fluorescence imaging of Gag protein fusions is widely performed and has revealed important information on viral assembly. Gag fusion proteins are commonly co-transfected with an unlabeled form of Gag to prevent labeling artifacts such as morphological defects and decreased infectivity. Although viral assembly is widely studied on individual cells, the efficiency of the co-transfection rescue has never been tested at the single cell level. Here, we first develop a methodology to quantify levels of unlabeled to labeled Gag in single cells using a fluorescent reporter protein for unlabeled Gag and fluorescence correlation spectroscopy. Using super-resolution imaging based on photoactivated localization microscopy (PALM) combined with molecular counting we then study the nanoscale morphology of Gag clusters as a function of unlabeled to labeled Gag ratios in single cells. We show that for a given co-transfection ratio, individual cells express a wide range of protein ratios, necessitating a quantitative read-out for the expression of unlabeled Gag. Further, we show that monomerically labeled Gag assembles into membrane-bound clusters that are morphologically indistinguishable from mixtures of unlabeled and labeled Gag.