BACKGROUNDThe HIV-1 pathogenic factor, Nef, is a multifunctional protein present in the cytosol and on membranes of infected cells. It has been proposed that a spatial and temporal regulation of the conformation of Nef sequentially matches Nef's multiple functions to the process of virion production. Further, it has been suggested that dimerization is required for multiple Nef activities. A dimerization interface has been proposed based on intermolecular contacts between Nefs within hexagonal Nef/FynSH3 crystals. The proposed dimerization interface consists of the hydrophobic B-helix and flanking salt bridges between R105 and D123. Here, we test whether Nef self-association is mediated by this interface and address the overall significance of oligomerization.RESULTSBy co-immunoprecipitation assays, we demonstrated that HIV-1Nef exists as monomers and oligomers with about half of the Nef protomers oligomerized. Nef oligomers were found to be present in the cytosol and on membranes. Removal of the myristate did not enhance the oligomerization of soluble Nef. Also, SIVNef oligomerizes despite lacking a dimerization interface functionally homologous to that proposed for HIV-1Nef. Moreover, HIV-1Nef and SIVNef form hetero-oligomers demonstrating the existence of homologous oligomerization interfaces that are distinct from that previously proposed (R105-D123). Intracellular cross-linking by formaldehyde confirmed that SF2Nef dimers are present in intact cells, but surprisingly self-association was dependent on R105, but not D123. SIV(MAC239)Nef can be cross-linked at its only cysteine, C55, and SF2Nef is also cross-linked, but at C206 instead of C55, suggesting that Nefs exhibit multiple dimeric structures. ClusPro dimerization analysis of HIV-1Nef homodimers and HIV-1Nef/SIVNef heterodimers identified a new potential dimerization interface, including a dibasic motif at R105-R106 and a six amino acid hydrophobic surface.CONCLUSIONSWe have demonstrated significant levels of intracellular Nef oligomers by immunoprecipitation from cellular extracts. However, our results are contrary to the identification of salt bridges between R105 and D123 as necessary for self-association. Importantly, binding between HIV-1Nef and SIVNef demonstrates evolutionary conservation and therefore significant function(s) for oligomerization. Based on modeling studies of Nef self-association, we propose a new dimerization interface. Finally, our findings support a stochastic model of Nef function with a dispersed intracellular distribution of Nef oligomers.