The tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) particle was the first macromolecular structure to be shown to self–assemble in vitro, allowing detailed studies of the mechanism.
Nucleation of TMV self–assembly is by the binding of a specific stem–loop of the single–stranded viral RNA into the central hole of a two–ring sub–assembly of the coat protein, known as the ‘disk’. Binding of the loop onto its specific binding site, between the two rings of the disk, leads to melting of the stem so more RNA is available to bind. The interaction of the RNA with the protein subunits in the disk cause this to dislocate into a proto–helix, rearranging the protein subunits in such a way that the axial gap between the rings at inner radii closes, entrapping the RNA.
Assembly starts at an internal site on TMV RNA, about 1 kb from its 3′–terminus, and the elongation in the two directions is different. Elongation of the nucleated rods towards the 5′–terminus occurs on a ‘travelling loop’ of the RNA and, predominantly, still uses the disk sub–assembly of protein subunits, consequently incorporating approximately 100 further nucleotides as each disk is added, while elongation towards the 3′–terminus uses smaller protein aggregates and does not show this ’quantized‘ incorporation.