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Cell. 1998 Jul 10;94(1):55-60.

Protein chainmail: catenated protein in viral capsids.

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Pittsburgh Bacteriophage Institute and Department of Biological Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15260, USA.


The capsid shells of bacteriophage HK97 and several other phages contain polypeptides that are covalently linked into complexes so large that they do not enter polyacrylamide gels after denaturation. The enormous apparent size of these protein complexes in HK97 derives from a novel protein topology. HK97 subunits cross-link via isopeptide bonds into oligomers that are closed rings of five or six members. However, polypeptides from neighboring pentamer and hexamer rings intertwine before the covalent cross-links form. As a result, adjacent protein rings catenate into a network similar to chainmail armor. In vitro linking and unlinking experiments provide strong support for the chainmail model, which explains the unusual properties of these bacteriophages and may apply to other macromolecular structures.

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