Approximation of virus structure by icosahedral tilings

D. G. Salthouse*, G. Indelicato, P. Cermelli, T. Keef, R. Twarock

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Viruses are remarkable examples of order at the nanoscale, exhibiting protein containers that in the vast majority of cases are organized with icosahedral symmetry. Janner used lattice theory to provide blueprints for the organization of material in viruses. An alternative approach is provided here in terms of icosahedral tilings, motivated by the fact that icosahedral symmetry is non-crystallographic in three dimensions. In particular, a numerical procedure is developed to approximate the capsid of icosahedral viruses by icosahedral tiles via projection of high-dimensional tiles based on the cut-and-project scheme for the construction of three-dimensional quasicrystals. The goodness of fit of our approximation is assessed using techniques related to the theory of polygonal approximation of curves. The approach is applied to a number of viral capsids and it is shown that detailed features of the capsid surface can indeed be satisfactorily described by icosahedral tilings. This work complements previous studies in which the geometry of the capsid is described by point sets generated as orbits of extensions of the icosahedral group, as such point sets are by construction related to the vertex sets of icosahedral tilings. The approximations of virus geometry derived here can serve as coarse-grained models of viral capsids as a basis for the study of virus assembly and structural transitions of viral capsids, and also provide a new perspective on the design of protein containers for nanotechnology applications.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)410-422
Number of pages13
JournalActa crystallographica. Section A, Foundations and advances
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • icosahedral tilings
  • polygonal approximation
  • virus capsid structure

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