Molecular jenga: The percolation phase transition (collapse) in virus capsids

Virus capsids are polymeric protein shells that protect the viral cargo. About half of known virus families have icosahedral capsids that self-assemble from tens to thousands of subunits. Capsid disassembly is critical to the lifecycles of many viruses yet is poorly understood. Here, we apply a graph- and percolation theory to examine the effect of removing capsid subunits on capsid stability and fragmentation. Based on the structure of the icosahedral capsid of Hepatitis B Virus (HBV), we constructed a graph of rhombic subunits arranged with icosahedral symmetry. Though our approach neglects dependence on energetics, time, and molecular detail, it quantitatively predicts a percolation phase transition consistent with recent in vitro studies of HBV capsid dissociation. While the stability of the capsid graph followed a gradual quadratic decay, the rhombic tiling abruptly fragmented when we removed more than 25% of the subunits, near the percolation threshold observed experimentally. This threshold may also affect results of capsid assembly, which also experimentally produces a preponderance of 90mer intermediates, as the intermediate steps in these reactions are reversible and can thus resemble dissociation. Application of percolation theory to understanding capsid association and dissociation may prove a general approach to relating virus biology to the underlying biophysics of the virus particle.

Publication Date:
Jun 06 2018
Date Submitted:
Jul 01 2019
Physical Biology
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 Record created 2019-07-01, last modified 2019-07-24

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