Understanding the Folding Mediated Assembly of the Bacteriophage MS2 Coat Protein Dimers

J Phys Chem B. 2021 Aug 12;125(31):8722-8732. doi: 10.1021/acs.jpcb.1c03928. Epub 2021 Aug 2.


The capsids of RNA viruses such as MS2 are great models for studying protein self-assembly because they are made almost entirely of multiple copies of a single coat protein (CP). Although CP is the minimal repeating unit of the capsid, previous studies have shown that CP exists as a homodimer (CP2) even in an acid-disassembled system, indicating that CP2 is an obligate dimer. Here, we investigate the molecular basis of this obligate dimerization using coarse-grained structure-based models and molecular dynamics simulations. We find that, unlike monomeric proteins of similar size, CP populates a single partially folded ensemble whose "foldedness" is sensitive to denaturing conditions. In contrast, CP2 folds similarly to single-domain proteins populating only the folded and the unfolded ensembles, separated by a prominent folding free energy barrier. Several intramonomer contacts form early, but the CP2 folding barrier is crossed only when the intermonomer contacts are made. A dissection of the structure of CP2 through mutant folding simulations shows that the folding barrier arises both from the topology of CP and the interface contacts of CP2. Together, our results show that CP2 is an obligate dimer because of kinetic stability, that is, dimerization induces a folding barrier and that makes it difficult for proteins in the dimer minimum to partially unfold and access the monomeric state without completely unfolding. We discuss the advantages of this obligate dimerization in the context of dimer design and virus stability.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Capsid / metabolism
  • Capsid Proteins / genetics
  • Capsid Proteins / metabolism
  • Dimerization
  • Levivirus* / genetics
  • Protein Folding*


  • Capsid Proteins