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Structural Transitions of Satellite Tobacco Mosaic Virus Particles


Satellite tobacco mosaic virus (STMV) can undergo at least two physical transitions that significantly alter its mechanical and structural characteristics. At high pH the 17-nm STMV particles expand radially by about 5 A to yield particles having diameters of about 18 nm. This pH-induced transition is further promoted by aging of the virions and degradation of the RNA, so that swollen particles ultimately appear even at neutral pH. While the native 17-nm particles crystallize as orthorhombic or monoclinic crystals which diffract to high resolution (1.8 A), the enlarged 18-nm particles crystallize in a cubic form which diffracts to no better than 5 A. In the transition, not only do the capsid protein subunits move radially outward, but the helical RNA segments with which they interact do as well. This is noteworthy because it demonstrates that the RNA and the protein shell are capable of coordinated movement, and that neither structure is rigidly defined or independent of the other. Using atomic force microscopy, it can be shown that STMV particles, upon drying, lose their mechanical rigidity and undergo deformation. Virions initially 17 nm in diameter shrink to more uniform final sizes than do 18 nm, initially swollen particles. This transition appears to be irreversible, as the particles do not reassume their former size nor structural rigidity upon rehydration. Evidence is also presented that preparations of native virus and their crystals are naturally somewhat heterogeneous and contain a variety of particles of anomalous size.

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