Modeling effects of RNA on capsid assembly pathways via coarse-grained stochastic simulation

Gregory R. Smith, Lu Xie, Russell Schwartz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


The environment of a living cell is vastly different from that of an in vitro reaction system, an issue that presents great challenges to the use of in vitro models, or computer simulations based on them, for understanding biochemistry in vivo. Virus capsids make an excellent model system for such questions because they typically have few distinct components, making them amenable to in vitro and modeling studies, yet their assembly can involve complex networks of possible reactions that cannot be resolved in detail by any current experimental technology. We previously fit kinetic simulation parameters to bulk in vitro assembly data to yield a close match between simulated and real data, and then used the simulations to study features of assembly that cannot be monitored experimentally. The present work seeks to project how assembly in these simulations fit to in vitro data would be altered by computationally adding features of the cellular environment to the system, specifically the presence of nucleic acid about which many capsids assemble. The major challenge of such work is computational: simulating fine-scale assembly pathways on the scale and in the parameter domains of real viruses is far too computationally costly to allow for explicit models of nucleic acid interaction. We bypass that limitation by applying analytical models of nucleic acid effects to adjust kinetic rate parameters learned from in vitro data to see how these adjustments, singly or in combination, might affect fine-scale assembly progress. The resulting simulations exhibit surprising behavioral complexity, with distinct effects often acting synergistically to drive efficient assembly and alter pathways relative to the in vitro model. The work demonstrates how computer simulations can help us understand how assembly might differ between the in vitro and in vivo environments and what features of the cellular environment account for these differences.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0156547
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2016
Externally publishedYes


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