A minimal coarse-grained model for the low-frequency normal mode analysis of icosahedral viral capsids†
The main goal of this work is the design of a coarse-grained theoretical model of minimal resolution for the study of the physical properties of icosahedral virus capsids within the linear-response regime. In this model the capsid is represented as an interacting many-body system whose composing elements are capsid subunits (capsomers), which are treated as three-dimensional rigid bodies. The total interaction potential energy is written as a sum of pairwise capsomer–capsomer interactions. Based on previous work [Gomez Llorente et al., Soft Matter, 2014, 10, 3560], a minimal and complete anisotropic binary interaction that includes a full Hessian matrix of independent force constants is proposed. In this interaction model, capsomers have rotational symmetry around an axis of order n > 2. The full coarse-grained model is applied to analyse the low-frequency normal-mode spectrum of icosahedral T = 1 capsids. The model performance is evaluated by fitting its predicted spectrum to the full-atom results for the Satellite Tobacco Necrosis Virus (STNV) capsid [Dykeman and Sankey, Phys. Rev. Lett., 2008, 100, 028101]. Two capsomer choices that are compatible with the capsid icosahedral symmetry are checked, namely pentamers (n = 5) and trimers (n = 3). Both subunit types provide fair fits, from which the magnitude of the coarse-grained force constants for a real virus is obtained. The model is able to uncover latent instabilities whose analysis is fully consistent with the current knowledge about the STNV capsid, which does not self-assemble in the absence of RNA and is thermally unstable. The straightforward generalisability of the model beyond the linear regime and its completeness make it a promising tool to theoretically interpret many experimental data such as those provided by the atomic force microscopy or even to better understand processes far from equilibrium such as the capsid self-assembly.