The HIV-1 core consists of capsid proteins (CA) surrounding viral genomic RNA. After virus-cell fusion, the core enters the cytoplasm and the capsid shell is lost through uncoating. CA loss precedes nuclear import and HIV integration into the host genome, but the timing and location of uncoating remain unclear. By visualizing single HIV-1 infection, we find that CA is required for core docking at the nuclear envelope (NE), whereas early uncoating in the cytoplasm promotes proteasomal degradation of viral complexes. Only docked cores exhibiting accelerated loss of CA at the NE enter the nucleus. Interestingly, a CA mutation (N74D) altering virus engagement of host factors involved in nuclear transport does not alter the uncoating site at the NE but reduces the nuclear penetration depth. Thus, CA protects HIV-1 complexes from degradation, mediates docking at the nuclear pore before uncoating, and determines the depth of nuclear penetration en route to integration.
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