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Physical Principles in the Self-Assembly of a Simple Spherical Virus

TitlePhysical Principles in the Self-Assembly of a Simple Spherical Virus
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsGarmann, RF, Comas-Garcia, M, Knobler, CM, Gelbart, WM
JournalAccounts of chemical research


Viruses are unique among living organisms insofar as they can be reconstituted “from scratch”, that is, synthesized from purified components. In the simplest cases, their “parts list” numbers only two: a single molecule of nucleic acid and many (but a very special number, i.e., multiples of 60) copies of a single protein. Indeed, the smallest viral genomes include essentially only two genes, on the order of a thousand times fewer than the next-simplest organisms like bacteria and yeast. For these reasons, it is possible and even fruitful to take a reductionist approach to viruses and to understand how they work in terms of fundamental physical principles.

In this Account, we discuss our recent physical chemistry approach to studying the self-assembly of a particular spherical virus (cowpea chlorotic mottle virus) whose reconstitution from RNA and capsid protein has long served as a model for virus assembly. While previous studies have clarified the roles of certain physical (electrostatic, hydrophobic, steric) interactions in the stability and structure of the final virus, it has been difficult to probe these interactions during assembly because of the inherently short lifetimes of the intermediate states. We feature the role of pH in tuning the magnitude of the interactions among capsid proteins during assembly: in particular, by making the interactions between proteins sufficiently weak, we are able to stall the assembly process and interrogate the structure and composition of particular on-pathway intermediates. Further, we find that the strength of the lateral attractions between RNA-bound proteins plays a key role in addressing several outstanding questions about assembly: What determines the pathway or pathways of assembly? What is the importance of kinetic traps and hysteresis? How do viruses copackage multiple short (compared with wild-type) RNAs or single long RNAs? What determines the relative packaging efficiencies of different RNAs when they are forced to compete for an insufficient supply of protein? And what is the limit on the length of RNA that can be packaged by CCMV capsid protein?

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