In polyomaviruses the pentameric capsomers are interlinked by the long C-terminal arm of the structural protein VP1. The T=7 icosahedral structure of these viruses is possible due to an intriguing adaptability of this linker arm to the different local environments in the capsid. To explore the assembly process, we have compared the structure of two virus-like particles (VLPs) formed, as we found, in a calcium-dependent manner by the VP1 protein of human polyomavirus BK. The structures were determined using electron cryomicroscopy (cryo-EM), and the three-dimensional reconstructions were interpreted by atomic modeling. In the small VP1 particle, 26.4 nm in diameter, the pentameric capsomers form an icosahedral T=1 surface lattice with meeting densities at the threefold axes that interlinked three capsomers. In the larger particle, 50.6 nm in diameter, the capsomers form a T=7 icosahedral shell with three unique contacts. A folding model of the BKV VP1 protein was obtained by alignment with the VP1 protein of simian virus 40 (SV40). The model fitted well into the cryo-EM density of the T=7 particle. However, residues 297 to 362 of the C-terminal arm had to be remodeled to accommodate the higher curvature of the T=1 particle. The loops, before and after the C-terminal short helix, were shown to provide the hinges that allowed curvature variation in the particle shell. The meeting densities seen at the threefold axes in the T=1 particle were consistent with the triple-helix interlinking contact at the local threefold axes in the T=7 structure.
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