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Biochemistry. 1996 Jun 11;35(23):7412-21.

Dimorphism of hepatitis B virus capsids is strongly influenced by the C-terminus of the capsid protein.

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Laboratory of Structural Biology, National Institute of Arthritis, Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20892, USA.


Hepatitis B virus (HBV) is an enveloped virus with an icosahedral capsid. Its homodimeric capsid protein ("core antigen") assembles into particles of two sizes, one with T = 3 icosahedral symmetry (90 dimers) and the other with T = 4 symmetry (120 dimers). We have investigated this assembly process in vitro, using a variety of purified, bacterially expressed, capsid proteins. All of our constructs lacked the predominantly basic C-terminal 34 amino acids of the full-length capsid protein (183 amino acids) and were further truncated to terminate at specific points between residues 138 and 149. While the smallest construct (138 residues) did not assemble into capsids, those terminating at residue 140, and beyond, assembled into mixtures of T = 3 and T = 4 particles. The two kinds of capsids could be separated on sucrose gradients and did not interconvert upon protracted storage. The proportion of T = 3 capsids, assayed by sucrose gradient fractionation, analytical ultracentrifugation, and cryoelectron microscopy, was found to increase systematically with larger deletions from the C-terminus. The variant terminating at residue 149 formed approximately 5% of T = 3 capsids, while the 140-residue protein produced approximately 85% of this isomorph. For the 147-residue capsid protein, the structures of both capsids were determined to 17 A resolution by three-dimensional reconstruction of cryoelectron micrographs. In these density maps, the boundaries of the constituent dimers can be clearly seen and the quaternary structures of the two capsids compared. The arrangement of dimers around their icosahedral five-fold axes is almost identical, whereas the quasi-six-fold arrangements of dimers are distinctly different.

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