Research ArticleBIOPHYSICS

Directional mechanical stability of Bacteriophage φ29 motor’s 3WJ-pRNA: Extraordinary robustness along portal axis

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Science Advances  26 May 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 5, e1601684
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601684


The molecular motor exploited by bacteriophage φ29 to pack DNA into its capsid is regarded as one of the most powerful mechanical devices present in viral, bacterial, and eukaryotic systems alike. Acting as a linker element, a prohead RNA (pRNA) effectively joins the connector and ATPase (adenosine triphosphatase) components of the φ29 motor. During DNA packing, this pRNA needs to withstand enormous strain along the capsid’s portal axis—how this remarkable stability is achieved remains to be elucidated. We investigate the mechanical properties of the φ29 motor’s three-way junction (3WJ)–pRNA using a combined steered molecular dynamics and atomic force spectroscopy approach. The 3WJ exhibits strong resistance to stretching along its coaxial helices, demonstrating its super structural robustness. This resistance disappears, however, when external forces are applied to the transverse directions. From a molecular standpoint, we demonstrate that this direction-dependent stability can be attributed to two Mg clamps that cooperate and generate mechanical resistance in the pRNA’s coaxial direction. Our results suggest that the asymmetric nature of the 3WJ’s mechanical stability is entwined with its biological function: Enhanced rigidity along the portal axis is likely essential to withstand the strain caused by DNA condensation, and flexibility in other directions should aid in the assembly of the pRNA and its association with other motor components.

  • molecular motor
  • mechanical stability
  • DNA packing
  • three way junction
  • molecular dynamics
  • atomic force microscopy (AFM)

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, so long as the resultant use is not for commercial advantage and provided the original work is properly cited.

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