Visualization of Bacteriophage T3 Capsids with DNA Incompletely Packaged In Vivo

Ping An Fang, Elena T. Wright, Susan T. Weintraub, Kevin Hakala, Weimin Wu, Philip Serwer, Wen Jiang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


The tightly packaged double-stranded DNA (dsDNA) genome in the mature particles of many tailed bacteriophages has been shown to form multiple concentric rings when reconstructed from cryo-electron micrographs. However, recent single-particle DNA packaging force measurements have suggested that incompletely packaged DNA (ipDNA) is less ordered when it is shorter than ∼ 25% of the full genome length. The study presented here initially achieves both the isolation and the ipDNA length-based fractionation of ipDNA-containing T3 phage capsids (ipDNA-capsids) produced by DNA packaging in vivo; some ipDNA has quantized lengths, as judged by high-resolution gel electrophoresis of expelled DNA. This is the first isolation of such particles among the tailed dsDNA bacteriophages. The ipDNA-capsids are a minor component (containing ∼ 10- 4 of packaged DNA in all particles) and are initially detected by nondenaturing gel electrophoresis after partial purification by buoyant density centrifugation. The primary contaminants are aggregates of phage particles and empty capsids. This study then investigates ipDNA conformations by the first cryo-electron microscopy of ipDNA-capsids produced in vivo. The 3-D structures of DNA-free capsids, ipDNA-capsids with various lengths of ipDNA, and mature bacteriophage are reconstructed, which reveals the typical T = 7l icosahedral shell of many tailed dsDNA bacteriophages. Though the icosahedral shell structures of these capsids are indistinguishable at the current resolution for the protein shell (∼ 15 Å), the conformations of the DNA inside the shell are drastically different. T3 ipDNA-capsids with 10.6 kb or shorter dsDNA (< 28% of total genome) have an ipDNA conformation indistinguishable from random. However, T3 ipDNA-capsids with 22 kb DNA (58% of total genome) form a single DNA ring next to the inner surface of the capsid shell. In contrast, dsDNA fully packaged (38.2 kb) in mature T3 phage particles forms multiple concentric rings such as those seen in other tailed dsDNA bacteriophages. The distance between the icosahedral shell and the outermost DNA ring decreases in the mature, fully packaged phage structure. These results suggest that, in the early stage of DNA packaging, the dsDNA genome is randomly distributed inside the capsid, not preferentially packaged against the inner surface of the capsid shell, and that the multiple concentric dsDNA rings seen later are the results of pressure-driven close-packing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1384-1399
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Molecular Biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Dec 31 2008


  • 3-D reconstruction
  • DNA packaging
  • buoyant density centrifugation
  • cryo-EM
  • mass spectrometry

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Structural Biology
  • Molecular Biology


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