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EMBO J. 1993 Apr;12(4):1303-9.

The portal protein of bacteriophage SPP1: a DNA pump with 13-fold symmetry.

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Fritz Haber Institut der Max Planck Gesellschaft, Berlin, Germany.


Electron microscopy in combination with image processing is a powerful method for obtaining structural information on non-crystallized biological macromolecules at the 10-50 A resolution level. The processing of noisy microscopical images requires advanced data processing methodologies in which one must carefully avoid the introduction of any form of bias into the data set. Using a novel multivariate statistical approach to the analysis of symmetry, we studied the structure of the bacteriophage SPP1 portal protein oligomer. This portal structure, ubiquitous in icosahedral bacteriophages which package dsDNA, is located at the site of symmetry mismatch between a 5-fold vertex of the icosahedral shell and the 6-fold symmetric (helical) tail. From previous studies such 'head-to-tail connector' structures were generally accepted to be homododecamers assembled in a 12-fold symmetric ring around a central channel. Using a new analysis methodology we have found that the phage SPP1 portal structure exhibits 13-fold cyclical symmetry: a new point group organization for oligomeric proteins. A model for the DNA packaging mechanism by 13-fold symmetric portal protein assemblies is presented which attributes a coherent functional meaning to their unusual symmetry.

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