Breaking Symmetry in Viral Icosahedral Capsids as Seen Through the Lenses of X-ray Crystallography and Cryo-Electron Microscopy

Viruses. 2018 Feb 7;10(2):67. doi: 10.3390/v10020067.


The majority of viruses on Earth form capsids built by multiple copies of one or more types of a coat protein arranged with 532 symmetry, generating an icosahedral shell. This highly repetitive structure is ideal to closely pack identical protein subunits and to enclose the nucleic acid genomes. However, the icosahedral capsid is not merely a passive cage but undergoes dynamic events to promote packaging, maturation and the transfer of the viral genome into the host. These essential processes are often mediated by proteinaceous complexes that interrupt the shell's icosahedral symmetry, providing a gateway through the capsid. In this review, we take an inventory of molecular structures observed either internally, or at the 5-fold vertices of icosahedral DNA viruses that infect bacteria, archea and eukaryotes. Taking advantage of the recent revolution in cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) and building upon a wealth of crystallographic structures of individual components, we review the design principles of non-icosahedral structural components that interrupt icosahedral symmetry and discuss how these macromolecules play vital roles in genome packaging, ejection and host receptor-binding.

Keywords: X-ray crystallography; archeal viruses; bacteriophages; cryo-EM; cryo-ET; giant viruses; icosahedral symmetry; portal protein; symmetry mismatch.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Bacteriophages / ultrastructure
  • Capsid / chemistry*
  • Capsid Proteins / chemistry*
  • Cryoelectron Microscopy*
  • Crystallography, X-Ray*
  • Humans
  • Molecular Structure
  • Protein Conformation
  • Protein Multimerization
  • Virus Assembly
  • Viruses / genetics
  • Viruses / ultrastructure*


  • Capsid Proteins