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Discovering the structural rules for spherical shell viruses


Buckminster Fuller inspires my work in the structure of spherical viruses
Aaron Klug Scientist
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Don Caspar – we've mentioned before that he had the first X-ray picture of Tomato Bushy Stunt Virus which showed icosahedral symmetry. And so we discussed why icosahedral symmetry, and one of the reasons is sort of obvious, which we suggested in our first paper on polio, the one that you and I wrote in '59. That if you want to... economical use of genes, then you make many copies of products of a gene. And icosahedral symmetry symmetry uses 60 identical sub-units... which is more than you can use for the others, so it's much more economical to build a shell out of icosahedral symmetry. But then, later, during that time when we... after we published the polio picture... the polio paper, I had a letter from... an acolyte or a pupil of Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of geodesic domes. And he read the polio paper and he sent me a book called The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller. And I knew a bit, I'd seen geodesic domes and I looked through it. And I came... I saw that he had... his language was most arcane; you had to translate it into English. He'd talk about omni-dimension, multi something or other. But then you actually look at the structures he made in the geodisic domes, he maintained that they had identical units and he was building great big domes, one of them had 270 units in it. Now, with perfect geometry you can only build 60 units absolutely identical... identically situated in a dome. And I could see from his pictures that they were... this one had 270; and he said, 'They were all identical.' But if I looked very carefully... I looked carefully at the diagrams and the 270 actually were 240 plus 30. The 30 were on two-fold axes of symmetry so really two half rods and the 240 were four groups of 60. And they were connected by a system of strings; they were what you call tensegrity domes. And the strings had little turn buckles that you use in sailing, fixing ropes; I didn't know, I thought they were little wheels so I misread the picture. And I came to the conclusion how clever the strings, which are tied to the ends of the rods and the rods are moved by strings, because I knew you couldn't have more than 60 identical. I thought, 'These... these were little rollers which adjusted the length of the strings to build', and I realised that this was a way of building something with more than 60 units. By which time... we knew by this time the Turnip Yellow Mosaic Virus which we'd been working, had at least 150 sub-units and so it had to be. So I began to think, I know there were controversies, Roy Markham said there were 32 times five, there were five, which wasn't correct for that; and I realised that I invented the term quasi-equivalence. And now Don Caspar, in the States, had also been wondering about this problem and he'd built models in which he was building... allowing... he had cardboard models which were really like ice cream cones with flat faces and he was showing you could put them in... into ways with more than 60 units. So we both had the idea independently but we arrived at it in different ways. So we wrote a paper in 1962 and it was written and we gave it at the Cold Spring Harbour Meeting in '62, it was called Physical principles and the design of virus shells and protein shells of viruses [sic].

Born in Lithuania, Aaron Klug (1926-2018) was a British chemist and biophysicist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982 for developments in electron microscopy and his work on complexes of nucleic acids and proteins. He studied crystallography at the University of Cape Town before moving to England, completing his doctorate in 1953 at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1981, he was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. His long and influential career led to a knighthood in 1988. He was also elected President of the Royal Society, and served there from 1995-2000.

Listeners: Ken Holmes John Finch

Kenneth Holmes was born in London in 1934 and attended schools in Chiswick. He obtained his BA at St Johns College, Cambridge. He obtained his PhD at Birkbeck College, London working on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus with Rosalind Franklin and Aaron Klug. After a post-doc at Childrens' Hospital, Boston, where he started to work on muscle structure, he joined to the newly opened Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge where he stayed for six years. He worked with Aaron Klug on virus structure and with Hugh Huxley on muscle. He then moved to Heidelberg to open the Department of Biophysics at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research where he remained as director until his retirement. During this time he completed the structure of tobacco mosaic virus and solved the structures of a number of protein molecules including the structure of the muscle protein actin and the actin filament. Recently he has worked on the molecular mechanism of muscle contraction. He also initiated the use of synchrotron radiation as a source for X-ray diffraction and founded the EMBL outstation at DESY Hamburg. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1981 and is a member of a number of scientific academies.

John Finch is a retired member of staff of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. He began research as a PhD student of Rosalind Franklin's at Birkbeck College, London in 1955 studying the structure of small viruses by x-ray diffraction. He came to Cambridge as part of Aaron Klug's team in 1962 and has continued with the structural study of viruses and other nucleoproteins such as chromatin, using both x-rays and electron microscopy.

Tags: The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller, Buckminster Fuller, Don Caspar, Roy Markham

Duration: 4 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008