Forced phage uncorking: viral DNA ejection triggered by a mechanically sensitive switch†
The foremost event of bacteriophage infection is the ejection of genomic material into the host bacterium after virus binding to surface receptor sites. How ejection is triggered is yet unknown. Here we show, in single mature T7 phage particles, that tapping the capsid wall with an oscillating atomic-force-microscope cantilever triggers rapid DNA ejection via the tail complex. The triggering rate increases exponentially as a function of force, following transition-state theory, across an activation barrier of 23 kcal mol−1 at 1.2 nm along the reaction coordinate. The conformation of the ejected DNA molecule revealed that it had been exposed to a propulsive force. This force, arising from intra-capsid pressure, assists in initiating the ejection process and the transfer of DNA across spatial dimensions beyond that of the virion. Chemical immobilization of the tail fibers also resulted in enhanced DNA ejection, suggesting that the triggering process might involve a conformational switch that can be mechanically activated either by external forces or via the tail-fiber complex.