Although the φX174 H protein is monomeric during procapsid morphogenesis, 10 proteins oligomerize to form a DNA translocating conduit (H-tube) for penetration. However, the timing and location of H-tube formation are unknown. The H-tube's highly repetitive primary and quaternary structures made it amenable to a genetic analysis using in-frame insertions and deletions. Length-altered proteins were characterized for the ability to perform the protein's three known functions: participation in particle assembly, genome translocation, and stimulation of viral protein synthesis. Insertion mutants were viable. Theoretically, these proteins would produce an assembled tube exceeding the capsid's internal diameter, suggesting that virions do not contain a fully assembled tube. Lengthened proteins were also used to test the biological significance of the crystal structure. Particles containing H proteins of two different lengths were significantly less infectious than both parents, indicating an inability to pilot DNA. Shortened H proteins were not fully functional. Although they could still stimulate viral protein synthesis, they either were not incorporated into virions or, if incorporated, failed to pilot the genome. Mutant proteins that failed to incorporate contained deletions within an 85-amino-acid segment, suggesting the existence of an incorporation domain. The revertants of shortened H protein mutants fell into two classes. The first class duplicated sequences neighboring the deletion, restoring wildtype length but not wild-type sequence. The second class suppressed an incorporation defect, allowing the use of the shortened protein. IMPORTANCE: The H-tube crystal structure represents the first high-resolution structure of a virally encoded DNA-translocating conduit. It has similarities with other viral proteins through which DNA must travel, such as the α-helical barrel domains of P22 portal proteins and T7 proteins that form tail tube extensions during infection. Thus, the H protein serves as a paradigm for the assembly and function of long α-helical supramolecular structures and nanotubes. Highly repetitive in primary and quaternary structure, they are amenable to structure-function analyses using in-frame insertions and deletions as presented herein.
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