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For a significant number of viruses a structural transition of the protein container that encapsulates the viral genome forms an important part of the life cycle and is a prerequisite for the particle becoming infectious. Despite many recent efforts the mechanism of this process is still not fully understood, and a complete characterization of the expansion pathways is still lacking. We present here a coarse-grained model that captures the essential features of the expansion process and allows us to investigate the conditions under which a viral capsid becomes unstable. Based on this model we demonstrate that the structural transitions in icosahedral viral capsids are likely to occur through a low-symmetry cascade of local expansion events spreading in a wavelike manner over the capsid surface.
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