Larsson DS, van der Spoel D
J. Chem. Theory Comput. 8 (7) 2474-2483 [2012-07-10; online 2012-06-26]
The complete structure of the genomic material inside a virus capsid remains elusive, although a limited amount of symmetric nucleic acid can be resolved in the crystal structure of 17 icosahedral viruses. The negatively charged sugar-phosphate backbone of RNA and DNA as well as the large positive charge of the interior surface of the virus capsids suggest that electrostatic complementarity is an important factor in the packaging of the genomes in these viruses. To test how much packing information is encoded by the electrostatic and steric envelope of the capsid interior, we performed extensive all-atom molecular dynamics (MD) simulations of virus capsids with explicit water molecules and solvent ions. The model systems were two small plant viruses in which significant amounts of RNA has been observed by X-ray crystallography: satellite tobacco mosaic virus (STMV, 62% RNA visible) and satellite tobacco necrosis virus (STNV, 34% RNA visible). Simulations of half-capsids of these viruses with no RNA present revealed that the binding sites of RNA correlated well with regions populated by chloride ions, suggesting that it is possible to screen for the binding sites of nucleic acids by determining the equilibrium distribution of negative ions. By including the crystallographically resolved RNA in addition to ions, we predicted the localization of the unresolved RNA in the viruses. Both viruses showed a hot-spot for RNA binding at the 5-fold symmetry axis. The MD simulations were compared to predictions of the chloride density based on nonlinear Poisson-Boltzmann equation (PBE) calculations with mobile ions. Although the predictions are superficially similar, the PBE calculations overestimate the ion concentration close to the capsid surface and underestimate it far away, mainly because protein dynamics is not taken into account. Density maps from chloride screening can be used to aid in building atomic models of packaged virus genomes. Knowledge of the principles of genome packaging might be exploited for both antiviral therapy and technological applications.