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Open Access Highly Accessed Review

Structure and assembly of bacteriophage T4 head

Venigalla B Rao1* and Lindsay W Black2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, USA

2 Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Maryland Medical School, Baltimore, MD, USA

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Virology Journal 2010, 7:356  doi:10.1186/1743-422X-7-356

Published: 3 December 2010

Abstract

The bacteriophage T4 capsid is an elongated icosahedron, 120 nm long and 86 nm wide, and is built with three essential proteins; gp23*, which forms the hexagonal capsid lattice, gp24*, which forms pentamers at eleven of the twelve vertices, and gp20, which forms the unique dodecameric portal vertex through which DNA enters during packaging and exits during infection. The past twenty years of research has greatly elevated the understanding of phage T4 head assembly and DNA packaging. The atomic structure of gp24 has been determined. A structural model built for gp23 using its similarity to gp24 showed that the phage T4 major capsid protein has the same fold as that found in phage HK97 and several other icosahedral bacteriophages. Folding of gp23 requires the assistance of two chaperones, the E. coli chaperone GroEL and the phage coded gp23-specific chaperone, gp31. The capsid also contains two non-essential outer capsid proteins, Hoc and Soc, which decorate the capsid surface. The structure of Soc shows two capsid binding sites which, through binding to adjacent gp23 subunits, reinforce the capsid structure. Hoc and Soc have been extensively used in bipartite peptide display libraries and to display pathogen antigens including those from HIV, Neisseria meningitides, Bacillus anthracis, and FMDV. The structure of Ip1*, one of the components of the core, has been determined, which provided insights on how IPs protect T4 genome against the E. coli nucleases that degrade hydroxymethylated and glycosylated T4 DNA. Extensive mutagenesis combined with the atomic structures of the DNA packaging/terminase proteins gp16 and gp17 elucidated the ATPase and nuclease functional motifs involved in DNA translocation and headful DNA cutting. Cryo-EM structure of the T4 packaging machine showed a pentameric motor assembled with gp17 subunits on the portal vertex. Single molecule optical tweezers and fluorescence studies showed that the T4 motor packages DNA at a rate of up to 2000 bp/sec, the fastest reported to date of any packaging motor. FRET-FCS studies indicate that the DNA gets compressed during the translocation process. The current evidence suggests a mechanism in which electrostatic forces generated by ATP hydrolysis drive the DNA translocation by alternating the motor between tensed and relaxed states.