From the abyss of the ocean to the human gut, bacterial viruses (or bacteriophages) have colonized all ecosystems of the planet earth and evolved in sync with their bacterial hosts. Over 95% of bacteriophages have a tail that varies greatly in length and complexity. The tail complex interrupts the icosahedral capsid symmetry and provides both an entry for viral genome-packaging during replication and an exit for genome-ejection during infection. Here, we review recent progress in deciphering the structure, assembly and conformational dynamics of viral genome-delivery tail machines. We focus on the bacteriophages P22 and T7, two well-studied members of the Podoviridae family that use short, non-contractile tails to infect Gram-negative bacteria. The structure of specialized tail fibers and their putative role in host anchoring, cell-surface penetration and genome-ejection is discussed.
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