Molecular Dissection of the Forces Responsible for Viral Capsid Assembly and Stabilization by Decoration Proteins

Complex double-stranded DNA viruses utilize a terminase enzyme to package their genomes into a preassembled procapsid shell. DNA packaging triggers a major conformational change in the proteins assembled into the shell and most often subsequent addition of a decoration protein that is required to stabilize the structure. In bacteriophage λ, DNA packaging drives a procapsid expansion transition to afford a larger but fragile shell. The gpD decoration protein adds to the expanded shell as trimeric spikes at each of the 140 three-fold axes. The spikes provide mechanical strength to the shell such that it can withstand the tremendous internal forces generated by the packaged DNA in addition to environmental insults. Hydrophobic, electrostatic, and aromatic–proline noncovalent interactions have been proposed to mediate gpD trimer spike assembly at the expanded shell surface. Here, we directly examine each of these interactions and demonstrate that hydrophobic interactions play the dominant role. In the course of this study, we unexpectedly found that Trp308 in the λ major capsid protein (gpE) plays a critical role in shell assembly. The gpE-W308A mutation affords a soluble, natively folded protein that does not further assemble into a procapsid shell, despite the fact that it retains binding interactions with the scaffolding protein, the shell assembly chaparone protein. The data support a model in which the λ procapsid shell assembles via cooperative interaction of monomeric capsid proteins, as observed in the herpesviruses and phages such as P22. The significance of the results with respect to capsid assembly, maturation, and stability is discussed.