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Concept: Capsid


BACKGROUND: In order to replicate within their cellular host, many viruses have developed self-assembly strategies for their capsids which are sufficiently robust as to be reconstituted in vitro. Mathematical models for virus self-assembly usually assume that the bonds leading to cluster formation have constant reactivity over the time course of assembly (direct assembly). In some cases, however, binding sites between the capsomers have been reported to be activated during the self-assembly process (hierarchical assembly). RESULTS: In order to study possible advantages of such hierarchical schemes for icosahedral virus capsid assembly, we use Brownian dynamics simulations of a patchy particle model that allows us to switch binding sites on and off during assembly. For T1 viruses, we implement a hierarchical assembly scheme where inter-capsomer bonds become active only if a complete pentamer has been assembled. We find direct assembly to be favorable for reversible bonds allowing for repeated structural reorganizations, while hierarchical assembly is favorable for strong bonds with small dissociation rate, as this situation is less prone to kinetic trapping. However, at the same time it is more vulnerable to monomer starvation during the final phase. Increasing the number of initial monomers does have only a weak effect on these general features. The differences between the two assembly schemes become more pronounced for more complex virus geometries, as shown here for T3 viruses, which assemble through homogeneous pentamers and heterogeneous hexamers in the hierarchical scheme. In order to complement the simulations for this more complicated case, we introduce a master equation approach that agrees well with the simulation results. CONCLUSIONS: Our analysis shows for which molecular parameters hierarchical assembly schemes can outperform direct ones. Hierarchical assembly is superior as it avoids kinetic trapping, but suffers more strongly from monomer starvation. These insights increase our physical understanding of an essential biological process, with many interesting potential applications in medicine and materials science.

Concepts: DNA, Microbiology, Virus, Simulation, Assembly language, Capsid, Computer virus, Icosahedron


The host cell factor cyclophilin A (CypA) interacts directly with the HIV-1 capsid and regulates viral infectivity. Although the crystal structure of CypA in complex with the N-terminal domain of the HIV-1 capsid protein (CA) has been known for nearly two decades, how CypA interacts with the viral capsid and modulates HIV-1 infectivity remains unclear. We determined the cryoEM structure of CypA in complex with the assembled HIV-1 capsid at 8-Å resolution. The structure exhibits a distinct CypA-binding pattern in which CypA selectively bridges the two CA hexamers along the direction of highest curvature. EM-guided all-atom molecular dynamics simulations and solid-state NMR further reveal that the CypA-binding pattern is achieved by single-CypA molecules simultaneously interacting with two CA subunits, in different hexamers, through a previously uncharacterized non-canonical interface. These results provide new insights into how CypA stabilizes the HIV-1 capsid and is recruited to facilitate HIV-1 infection.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Protein structure, Molecular dynamics, Capsid


Tailed bacteriophages and herpesviruses assemble infectious particles via an empty precursor capsid (or ‘procapsid’) built by multiple copies of coat and scaffolding protein and by one dodecameric portal protein. Genome packaging triggers rearrangement of the coat protein and release of scaffolding protein, resulting in dramatic procapsid lattice expansion. Here, we provide structural evidence that the portal protein of the bacteriophage P22 exists in two distinct dodecameric conformations: an asymmetric assembly in the procapsid (PC-portal) that is competent for high affinity binding to the large terminase packaging protein, and a symmetric ring in the mature virion (MV-portal) that has negligible affinity for the packaging motor. Modelling studies indicate the structure of PC-portal is incompatible with DNA coaxially spooled around the portal vertex, suggesting that newly packaged DNA triggers the switch from PC- to MV-conformation. Thus, we propose the signal for termination of ‘Headful Packaging’ is a DNA-dependent symmetrization of portal protein.

Concepts: Microbiology, Virus, Capsid


Viral capsids ensure viral genome integrity by protecting the enclosed nucleic acids. Interactions between the genome, capsid and between individual capsid proteins (i.e. “capsid architecture”) are intimate and expected to be characterized by strong evolutionary conservation. For this reason, a capsid structure-based viral classification has been proposed as a way to bring order to the viral universe. The seeming lack of sufficient sequence similarity to reproduce this classification has made it difficult to reject structural convergence as the basis for the classification. We reinvestigate whether the structure-based classification, for viral coat proteins making icosahedral virus capsids, is in fact supported by previously undetected sequence similarity. Since codon choices can influence nascent protein folding cotranslationally, we have searched for both amino acid and nucleotide sequence similarity. To demonstrate the sensitivity of the approach, we identify a candidate gene for the Pandoravirus capsid protein. We show that the structure-based classification is strongly supported by amino acid and also nucleotide sequence similarity, suggesting that similarities are due to common descent. The correspondence between structure-based and sequence-based analyses of the same proteins shown here allow them to be used in future analyses of the relationship between linear sequence information and macromolecular function, as well as between linear sequence and protein folds.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Gene, Amino acid, Metabolism, Virus, RNA, Capsid


Retroviral capsid proteins are conserved structurally but assemble into different morphologies. The mature human immunodeficiency virus-1 (HIV-1) capsid is best described by a ‘fullerene cone’ model, in which hexamers of the capsid protein are linked to form a hexagonal surface lattice that is closed by incorporating 12 capsid-protein pentamers. HIV-1 capsid protein contains an amino-terminal domain (NTD) comprising seven α-helices and a β-hairpin, a carboxy-terminal domain (CTD) comprising four α-helices, and a flexible linker with a 310-helix connecting the two structural domains. Structures of the capsid-protein assembly units have been determined by X-ray crystallography; however, structural information regarding the assembled capsid and the contacts between the assembly units is incomplete. Here we report the cryo-electron microscopy structure of a tubular HIV-1 capsid-protein assembly at 8 Å resolution and the three-dimensional structure of a native HIV-1 core by cryo-electron tomography. The structure of the tubular assembly shows, at the three-fold interface, a three-helix bundle with critical hydrophobic interactions. Mutagenesis studies confirm that hydrophobic residues in the centre of the three-helix bundle are crucial for capsid assembly and stability, and for viral infectivity. The cryo-electron-microscopy structures enable modelling by large-scale molecular dynamics simulation, resulting in all-atom models for the hexamer-of-hexamer and pentamer-of-hexamer elements as well as for the entire capsid. Incorporation of pentamers results in closer trimer contacts and induces acute surface curvature. The complete atomic HIV-1 capsid model provides a platform for further studies of capsid function and for targeted pharmacological intervention.

Concepts: Protein, Protein structure, Molecular dynamics, Structure, System, C-terminus, N-terminus, Capsid


Whereas the protein composition and overall shape of several giant virus capsids have been described, the mechanism by which these large capsids assemble remains enigmatic. Here, we present a reconstruction of the capsid of Cafeteria roenbergensis virus (CroV), one of the largest viruses analyzed by cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to date. The CroV capsid has a diameter of 3,000 Å and a Triangulation number of 499. Unlike related mimiviruses, the CroV capsid is not decorated with glycosylated surface fibers, but features 30 Å-long surface protrusions that are formed by loops of the major capsid protein. Based on the orientation of capsomers in the cryo-EM reconstruction, we propose that the capsids of CroV and related giant viruses are assembled by a newly conceived assembly pathway that initiates at a five-fold vertex and continuously proceeds outwards in a spiraling fashion.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Microbiology, Virus, Virology, Assembly language, Viral envelope, Capsid


Viruses are ecologically important, yet environmental virology is limited by dominance of unannotated genomic sequences representing taxonomic and functional “viral dark matter.” Although recent analytical advances are rapidly improving taxonomic annotations, identifying functional dark matter remains problematic. Here, we apply paired metaproteomics and dsDNA-targeted metagenomics to identify 1,875 virion-associated proteins from the ocean. Over one-half of these proteins were newly functionally annotated and represent abundant and widespread viral metagenome-derived protein clusters (PCs). One primarily unannotated PC dominated the dataset, but structural modeling and genomic context identified this PC as a previously unidentified capsid protein from multiple uncultivated tailed virus families. Furthermore, four of the five most abundant PCs in the metaproteome represent capsid proteins containing the HK97-like protein fold previously found in many viruses that infect all three domains of life. The dominance of these proteins within our dataset, as well as their global distribution throughout the world’s oceans and seas, supports prior hypotheses that this HK97-like protein fold is the most abundant biological structure on Earth. Together, these culture-independent analyses improve virion-associated protein annotations, facilitate the investigation of proteins within natural viral communities, and offer a high-throughput means of illuminating functional viral dark matter.

Concepts: Gene, Bioinformatics, Microbiology, Virus, Virology, Ocean, Viral envelope, Capsid


Vesicular nucleo-cytoplasmic transport is becoming recognized as a general cellular mechanism for translocation of large cargoes across the nuclear envelope. Cargo is recruited, enveloped at the inner nuclear membrane (INM), and delivered by membrane fusion at the outer nuclear membrane. To understand the structural underpinning for this trafficking, we investigated nuclear egress of progeny herpesvirus capsids where capsid envelopment is mediated by two viral proteins, forming the nuclear egress complex (NEC). Using a multi-modal imaging approach, we visualized the NEC in situ forming coated vesicles of defined size. Cellular electron cryo-tomography revealed a protein layer showing two distinct hexagonal lattices at its membrane-proximal and membrane-distant faces, respectively. NEC coat architecture was determined by combining this information with integrative modeling using small-angle X-ray scattering data. The molecular arrangement of the NEC establishes the basic mechanism for budding and scission of tailored vesicles at the INM.

Concepts: Cell, Virus, Endoplasmic reticulum, Nuclear envelope, Scattering, Membrane biology, Capsid, Inner nuclear membrane proteins


Key steps in a viral life-cycle, such as self-assembly of a protective protein container or in some cases also subsequent maturation events, are governed by the interplay of physico-chemical mechanisms involving various spatial and temporal scales. These salient aspects of a viral life cycle are hence well described and rationalised from a mesoscopic perspective. Accordingly, various experimental and computational efforts have been directed towards identifying the fundamental building blocks that are instrumental for the mechanical response, or constitute the assembly units, of a few specific viral shells. Motivated by these earlier studies we introduce and apply a general and efficient computational scheme for identifying the stable domains of a given viral capsid. The method is based on elastic network models and quasi-rigid domain decomposition. It is first applied to a heterogeneous set of well-characterized viruses (CCMV, MS2, STNV, STMV) for which the known mechanical or assembly domains are correctly identified. The validated method is next applied to other viral particles such as L-A, Pariacoto and polyoma viruses, whose fundamental functional domains are still unknown or debated and for which we formulate verifiable predictions. The numerical code implementing the domain decomposition strategy is made freely available.

Concepts: Microbiology, Virus, Virology, Subroutine, Viral envelope, Capsid, Formal verification, Formal methods


Development of precise protocols for accurate site-specific conjugation of monodisperse inorganic nanoparticles to biological material is one of the challenges in contemporary bionanoscience and nanomedicine. We report here a successful site-specific covalent conjugation of functionalized atomically monodisperse gold clusters with 1.5-nm metal cores to viral surfaces. Water-soluble Au102(para-mercaptobenzoic acid)44 clusters, functionalized by maleimide linkers to target cysteines of viral capsid proteins, were synthesized and conjugated to enteroviruses echovirus 1 and coxsackievirus B3. Quantitative analysis of transmission electron microscopy images and the known virus structures showed high affinity and mutual ordering of the bound gold clusters on the viral surface and a clear correlation between the clusters and the targeted cysteine sites close to the viral surface. Infectivity of the viruses was not compromised by loading of several tens of gold clusters per virus. These advances allow for future investigations of the structure-function relations of enteroviruses and enterovirus-related virus-like particles, including their entry mechanisms into cells and uncoating in cellular endosomes.

Concepts: Electron, Enterovirus, Microbiology, Nanotechnology, Virology, Echovirus, Viral envelope, Capsid