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Cryo-EM structures of herpes simplex virus type 1 portal vertex and packaged genome

Herpesviruses are enveloped viruses that are prevalent in the human population and are responsible for diverse pathologies, including cold sores, birth defects and cancers. They are characterized by a highly pressurized pseudo-icosahedral capsid—with triangulation number (T) equal to 16—encapsidating a tightly packed double-stranded DNA (dsDNA) genome1,2,3. A key process in the herpesvirus life cycle involves the recruitment of an ATP-driven terminase to a unique portal vertex to recognize, package and cleave concatemeric dsDNA, ultimately giving rise to a pressurized, genome-containing virion4,5. Although this process has been studied in dsDNA phages6,7,8,9—with which herpesviruses bear some similarities—a lack of high-resolution in situ structures of genome-packaging machinery has prevented the elucidation of how these multi-step reactions, which require close coordination among multiple actors, occur in an integrated environment. To better define the structural basis of genome packaging and organization in herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), we developed sequential localized classification and symmetry relaxation methods to process cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) images of HSV-1 virions, which enabled us to decouple and reconstruct hetero-symmetric and asymmetric elements within the pseudo-icosahedral capsid. Here we present in situ structures of the unique portal vertex, genomic termini and ordered dsDNA coils in the capsid spooled around a disordered dsDNA core. We identify tentacle-like helices and a globular complex capping the portal vertex that is not observed in phages, indicative of herpesvirus-specific adaptations in the DNA-packaging process. Finally, our atomic models of portal vertex elements reveal how the fivefold-related capsid accommodates symmetry mismatch imparted by the dodecameric portal—a longstanding mystery in icosahedral viruses—and inform possible DNA-sequence recognition and headful-sensing pathways involved in genome packaging. This work showcases how to resolve symmetry-mismatched elements in a large eukaryotic virus and provides insights into the mechanisms of herpesvirus genome packaging.

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