The impact of viral RNA on assembly pathway selection

Victoria L Morton, Eric C Dykeman, Nicola J Stonehouse, Alison E Ashcroft, Reidun Twarock, Peter G Stockley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many single-stranded RNA viruses self-assemble their protein containers around their genomes. The roles that the RNA plays in this assembly process have mostly been ignored, resulting in a protein-centric view of assembly that is unable to explain adequately the fidelity and speed of assembly in such viruses. Using bacteriophage MS2, we demonstrate here via a combination of mass spectrometry and kinetic modelling how viral RNA can bias assembly towards only a small number of the many possible assembly pathways, thus increasing assembly efficiency. Assembly reactions have been studied in vitro using phage coat protein dimers, the known building block of the T=3 shell, and short RNA stem-loops based on the translational operator of the replicase cistron, a 19 nt fragment (TR). Mass spectrometry has unambiguously identified two on-pathway intermediates in such reactions that have stoichiometry consistent with formation of either a particle 3-fold or 5-fold axis. These imply that there are at least two sub-pathways to the final capsid. The flux through each pathway is controlled by the length of the RNA stem-loop triggering the assembly reaction and this effect can be understood in structural terms. The kinetics of intermediate formation have been studied and show steady-state concentrations for intermediates between starting materials and the T=3 shell, consistent with an assembly process in which all the steps are in equilibrium. These data have been used to derive a kinetic model of the assembly reaction that in turn allows us to determine the dominant assembly pathways explicitly, and to estimate the effect of the RNA on the free energy of association between the assembling protein subunits. The results reveal that there are only a small number of dominant assembly pathways, which vary depending on the relative ratios of RNA and protein. These results suggest that the genomic RNA plays significant roles in defining the precise assembly sub-pathway followed to create the final capsid.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)298-308
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Molecular Biology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2010


  • Base Sequence
  • Capsid
  • Capsid Proteins
  • Kinetics
  • Levivirus
  • Macromolecular Substances
  • Mass Spectrometry
  • Models, Molecular
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation
  • Protein Subunits
  • RNA, Viral
  • Thermodynamics
  • Virus Assembly

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