Motors that move DNA, or that move along DNA, play essential roles in DNA replication, transcription, recombination, and chromosome segregation. The mechanisms by which these DNA translocases operate remain largely unknown. Some double-stranded DNA (dsDNA) viruses use an ATP-dependent motor to drive DNA into preformed capsids. These include several human pathogens as well as dsDNA bacteriophages-viruses that infect bacteria. We previously proposed that DNA is not a passive substrate of bacteriophage packaging motors but is instead an active component of the machinery. We carried out computational studies on dsDNA in the channels of viral portal proteins, and they reveal DNA conformational changes consistent with that hypothesis. dsDNA becomes longer ("stretched") in regions of high negative electrostatic potential and shorter ("scrunched") in regions of high positive potential. These results suggest a mechanism that electrostatically couples the energy released by ATP hydrolysis to DNA translocation: The chemical cycle of ATP binding, hydrolysis, and product release drives a cycle of protein conformational changes. This produces changes in the electrostatic potential in the channel through the portal, and these drive cyclic changes in the length of dsDNA as the phosphate groups respond to the protein's electrostatic potential. The DNA motions are captured by a coordinated protein-DNA grip-and-release cycle to produce DNA translocation. In short, the ATPase, portal, and dsDNA work synergistically to promote genome packaging.
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