Viroids are infectious, circular RNA molecules of 246 to 375 nucleotides found in plants. Virusoids are of similar size and structure but they are dependent on, and encapsidated in, a helper virus. A rolling circle mechanism of replication is considered to account for the presence of greater-than-unit-length plus and minus RNAs of both viroids and virusoids found in infected plants. An essential feature of this mechanism is the specific processing or cleavage of high molecular weight intermediates to produce linear monomers which are then ligated to circular monomers.

We have investigated the putative processing cleavage reactions using in vitro-synthesized RNA transcripts of dimeric cDNA clones of the 247-nucleotide avocado sunblotch viroid (ASBV) and of partial cDNA clones of the 324-nucleotide virusoid of lucerne transient streak virus (vLTSV). In both cases, there is a specific, non-enzymic, self-cleavage of plus as well as minus transcripts. The plus and minus sites of cleavage are in neighbouring parts of ASBV and of vLTSV and highly conserved two-dimensional structures can be drawn around the cleavage sites as well as around the putative or demonstrated cleavage sites of precursors of the virusoids of three other viruses and of the linear satellite RNA of tobacco ringspot virus. The results also indicate that the sole function of about one-third of the ASBV and vLTSV molecules is provision of sequences that allow the formation of the self-cleavage structures of both ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ RNA precursors during the replication cycle.

Similar self-cleavage of ‘plus’ RNA transcripts of a dimeric cDNA clone of citrus exocortis virus (CEV) was not observed. However, the putative processing site for CEV precursors was located within three nucleotides by site-directed mutagenesis. No two-dimensional structures similar to those found for ASBV and vLTSV were found around the processing site. It is possible that a different type of self-cleavage or enzymic processing event occurs during the replication cycle of CEV and related viroids.

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