Structure, assembly, and DNA packaging of the bacteriophage T4 head

Adv Virus Res. 2012;82:119-53. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-394621-8.00018-2.


The bacteriophage T4 head is an elongated icosahedron packed with 172 kb of linear double-stranded DNA and numerous proteins. The capsid is built from three essential proteins: gp23*, which forms the hexagonal capsid lattice; gp24*, which forms pentamers at 11 of the 12 vertices; and gp20, which forms the unique dodecameric portal vertex through which DNA enters during packaging and exits during infection. Intensive work over more than half a century has led to a deep understanding of the phage T4 head. 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 numerous other icosahedral bacteriophages. However, phage T4 displays an unusual membrane and portal initiated assembly of a shape determining self-sufficient scaffolding core. Folding of gp23 requires the assistance of two chaperones, the Escherichia coli chaperone GroEL acting with the phage-coded gp23-specific cochaperone, gp31. The capsid also contains two nonessential outer capsid proteins, Hoc and Soc, which decorate the capsid surface. Through binding to adjacent gp23 subunits, Soc reinforces the capsid structure. Hoc and Soc have been used extensively in bipartite peptide display libraries and to display pathogen antigens, including those from human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Neisseria meningitides, Bacillus anthracis, and foot and mouth disease virus. The structure of Ip1*, one of a number of multiple (>100) copy proteins packed and injected with DNA from the full head, shows it to be an inhibitor of one specific restriction endonuclease specifically targeting glycosylated hydroxymethyl cytosine DNA. Extensive mutagenesis, combined with 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. The cryoelectron microscopy 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 the highest rate known and can package multiple segments. Förster resonance energy transfer-fluorescence correlation spectroscopy studies indicate that DNA gets compressed in the stalled motor and that the terminase-to-portal distance changes during translocation. Current evidence suggests a linear two-component (large terminase plus portal) translocation motor in which electrostatic forces generated by ATP hydrolysis drive DNA translocation by alternating the motor between tensed and relaxed states.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adenosine Triphosphatases / metabolism
  • Bacteriophage T4 / chemistry*
  • Bacteriophage T4 / genetics
  • Bacteriophage T4 / ultrastructure
  • Capsid / chemistry
  • Capsid / ultrastructure
  • Capsid Proteins / chemistry
  • Capsid Proteins / ultrastructure
  • DNA Packaging / physiology*
  • DNA, Viral / chemistry*
  • DNA, Viral / ultrastructure
  • Endodeoxyribonucleases / chemistry
  • Endodeoxyribonucleases / ultrastructure
  • Escherichia coli / virology
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation
  • Protein Conformation
  • Protein Folding
  • Virion / chemistry*
  • Virion / ultrastructure
  • Virus Assembly / genetics


  • Capsid Proteins
  • DNA, Viral
  • Endodeoxyribonucleases
  • terminase, phage T4
  • Adenosine Triphosphatases