Cowpea chlorotic mottle virus (CCMV) forms highly elastic icosahedral protein capsids that undergo a characteristic swelling transition when the pH is raised from 5 to 7. Here, we performed nano-indentation experiments using an atomic force microscope to track capsid swelling and measure the shells' Young's modulus at the same time. When we chelated Ca<sup>2+</sup> ions and raised the pH, we observed a gradual swelling of the RNA-filled capsids accompanied by a softening of the shell. Control experiments with empty wild-type virus and a salt-stable mutant revealed that the softening was not strictly coupled to the swelling of the protein shells. Our data suggest that a pH increase and Ca<sup>2+</sup> chelation lead primarily to a loosening of contacts within the protein shell, resulting in a softening of the capsid. This appears to render the shell metastable and make swelling possible when repulsive forces among the capsid proteins become large enough, which is known to be followed by capsid disassembly at even higher pH. Thus, softening and swelling are likely to play a role during inoculation.
ASJC Scopus subject areas