Studying large viruses

Adv Protein Chem. 2003:64:379-408. doi: 10.1016/s0065-3233(03)01011-8.


In this article we have attempted to describe some structural aspects of large viruses. Although this may seem a straightforward task, it is complicated by the fact that large viruses do not represent a distinctive class of organisms and any grouping under this heading will include a range of unrelated viruses with different structures, replication strategies, and host types. To simplify matters we limited our definition to dsDNA viruses with genomes of 100 kbp or larger. However, even this restricted grouping includes viruses with diverse and seemingly unrelated structures. Furthermore, few if any structural features are exclusive to large viruses and most of what appears distinctive about their structure or assembly can also be found in smaller, and usually better characterized, viruses. Therefore we have not attempted to provide a comprehensive catalog of the properties of large viruses but have tried to illustrate particular structural points with examples from a few of the better known forms, notably herpes simplex virus (HSV) and phage T4. The two techniques used to provide rigorous analyses of virus structures are X-ray crystallography and electron cryomicroscopy with computer-assisted reconstruction. To date, X-ray crystallography has been successful only with smaller viruses, and what is known about the structures of these large viruses has come primarily from electron cryomicroscopy. However, with the notable exception of the HSV capsid, such studies have been limited in extent and of relatively low resolution, and the information obtained has been confined largely to describing the spatial distributions and relationships between the subunits. Nevertheless, these studies have given us our clearest insights into the biology of these complex particles and increases in resolution promise to extend these insights by bridging the gap between gross and atomic structures, as exemplified by the identification and mapping of secondary structural elements in the HSV capsid.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Genome, Viral
  • Humans
  • Viral Structural Proteins / chemistry
  • Viral Structural Proteins / metabolism
  • Virion / ultrastructure
  • Virus Physiological Phenomena
  • Viruses / chemistry*
  • Viruses / genetics
  • Viruses / ultrastructure*


  • Viral Structural Proteins