The European Physical Journal Special Topics

, Volume 225, Issue 8–9, pp 1757–1774 | Cite as

Breaking a virus: Identifying molecular level failure modes of a viral capsid by multiscale modeling

  • V. Krishnamani
  • C. Globisch
  • C. Peter
  • M. DesernoEmail author
Regular Article Specific Models to Tackle Fundamental Questions
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Modern Simulation Approaches in Soft Matter Science: From Fundamental Understanding to Industrial Applications


We use coarse-grained (CG) simulations to study the deformation of empty Cowpea Chlorotic Mottle Virus (CCMV) capsids under uniaxial compression, from the initial elastic response up to capsid breakage. Our CG model is based on the MARTINI force field and has been amended by a stabilizing elastic network, acting only within individual proteins, that was tuned to capture the fluctuation spectrum of capsid protein dimers, obtained from all atom simulations. We have previously shown that this model predicts force-compression curves that match AFM indentation experiments on empty CCMV capsids. Here we investigate details of the actual breaking events when the CCMV capsid finally fails. We present a symmetry classification of all relevant protein contacts and show that they differ significantly in terms of stability. Specifically, we show that interfaces which break readily are precisely those which are believed to form last during assembly, even though some of them might share the same contacts as other non-breaking interfaces. In particular, the interfaces that form pentamers of dimers never break, while the virtually identical interfaces within hexamers of dimers readily do. Since these units differ in the large-scale geometry and, most noticeably, the cone-angle at the center of the 5- or 6-fold vertex, we propose that the hexameric unit fails because it is pre-stressed. This not only suggests that hexamers of dimers form less frequently during the early stages of assembly; it also offers a natural explanation for the well-known β-barrel motif at the hexameric center as a post-aggregation stabilization mechanism. Finally, we identify those amino acid contacts within all key protein interfaces that are most persistent during compressive deformation of the capsid, thereby providing potential targets for mutation studies aiming to elucidate the key contacts upon which overall stability rests.


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Copyright information

© EDP Sciences and Springer 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • V. Krishnamani
    • 1
  • C. Globisch
    • 2
  • C. Peter
    • 2
  • M. Deserno
    • 3
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Molecular Physiology and BiophysicsUniversity of Iowa, Carver College of MedicineIowa CityUSA
  2. 2.Department of ChemistryUniversity of Konstanz,Konstanz, Germany Max-Planck-Institute for Polymer ResearchMainzGermany
  3. 3.Department of PhysicsCarnegie Mellon UniversityPittsburghUSA

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