Background: Studies of simple RNA animal viruses show that cell attachment, particle destabilization and cell entry are complex processes requiring a level of capsid sophistication that is difficult to achieve with a shell containing only a single gene product. Nodaviruses [such as Flock House virus (FHV)] are an exception. We have previously determined the structure of FHV at 3 A resolution, and now combine this information with data from cryo-electron microscopy in an attempt to clarify the process by which nodaviruses infect animal cells.
Results: A difference map was computed in which electron density at 22 A resolution, derived from the 3.0 A resolution X-ray model of the FHV capsid protein, was subtracted from the electron density derived from the cryo-electron microscopy reconstruction of FHV at 22 A resolution. Comparisons of this density with the X-ray model showed that quasi-equivalent regions of identical polypeptide sequences have markedly different interactions with the bulk RNA density. Previously reported biphasic kinetics of particle maturation and the requirement of subunit cleavage for particle infectivity are consistent with these results.
Conclusions: On the basis of this study we propose a model for nodavirus infection that is conceptually similar to that proposed for poliovirus but differs from it in detail. The constraints of a single protein type in the capsid lead to a noteworthy use of quasi-symmetry not only to control the binding of a 'pocket factor' but also to modulate maturation cleavage and to release a pentameric helical bundle (with genomic RNA attached) that may further interact with the cell membrane.