Virus Mechanics under Molecular Crowding

Cheng Zeng, Liam Scott, Andrey Malyutin, Roya Zandi, Paul van der Schoot, Bogdan Dragnea (Corresponding author)

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Viruses avoid exposure of the viral genome to harmful agents with the help of a protective protein shell known as the capsid. A secondary effect of this protective barrier is that macromolecules that may be in high concentration on the outside cannot freely diffuse across it. Therefore, inside the cell and possibly even outside, the intact virus is generally under a state of osmotic stress. Viruses deal with this type of stress in various ways. In some cases, they might harness it for infection. However, the magnitude and influence of osmotic stress on virus physical properties remains virtually unexplored for single-stranded RNA viruses - the most abundant class of viruses. Here, we report on how a model system for the positive-sense RNA icosahedral viruses, brome mosaic virus (BMV), responds to osmotic pressure. Specifically, we study the mechanical properties and structural stability of BMV under controlled molecular crowding conditions. We show that BMV is mechanically reinforced under a small external osmotic pressure but starts to yield after a threshold pressure is reached. We explain this mechanochemical behavior as an effect of the molecular crowding on the entropy of the "breathing"fluctuation modes of the virus shell. The experimental results are consistent with the viral RNA imposing a small negative internal osmotic pressure that prestresses the capsid. Our findings add a new line of inquiry to be considered when addressing the mechanisms of viral disassembly inside the crowded environment of the cell.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1790–1798
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Physical Chemistry B
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 25 Feb 2021


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