Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Biophysics and BioMed Central.

Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Stochastic dynamics of virus capsid formation: direct versus hierarchical self-assembly

Johanna E Baschek1, Heinrich C R Klein1 and Ulrich S Schwarz12*

Author affiliations

1 Institute for Theoretical Physics, University of Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany

2 BioQuant, University of Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany

For all author emails, please log on.

Citation and License

BMC Biophysics 2012, 5:22  doi:10.1186/2046-1682-5-22

Published: 17 December 2012

Abstract

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 and suggests that viruses with high bond stability might prefer hierarchical assembly schemes. These insights increase our physical understanding of an essential biological process, with many interesting potential applications in medicine and materials science.