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Discovering the structural rules for spherical shell viruses

Aaron Klug
Scientist

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This was a landmark paper and we there postulated that the... that why there was a virus which had 60 units for example, and polio starts out with 60 units but later on the proteins get cut up into smaller pieces after assembly, and there are others like that. So we postulated that there were... had to be multiples of 60 and Caspar and I enumerated all the possible ways, putting together multiples of 60 units together to build different shells. And it turns out not every multiple of 60 is possible, so we developed the rules for that. And... but the... since then, all the spherical virus structures and indeed all cage structures do obey one of these principles; but, it turns out that the way they are realised is different, it's their exceptions. And Don Caspar and I parted company later on about... later on when he began to say there were no rules. I won't go into that but it turns out really that... So this spherical virus... this structure... structure of the spherical viruses was quite a triumph in its own way, it impressed Francis Crick absolutely no end, you see. He seized upon it immediately because he had postulated symmetry and could see that he could generalise the mathematical concept of symmetry. This was a physical principle because various structures aren't built, they don't know about these laws of abstract mathematics and symmetry; they are built to minimise the energy and you can do this provided you can close a structure. And I made all sorts of models and so did Caspar showing how you could build in curvature and there was... this raised quite a lot of attention. And I remember appearing on the *Horizon* programme, having to jump out of a Buckminster Fuller dome these TV producers' tricks, breaking a plastic cover. And we built some geodesic domes and I also... Buckminster Fuller came to visit us, and as Buckminster Fuller, who, of course, is a... a totally unlettered, he... the... the architects thought him a great mathematician, the mathematicians thought him a crank, you see. He totally, you know... he used... Euler's theorem which relates to the number of vertices... the number of vertices, faces and lines on the polyhedron it's called Euler theorem, it's V plus E minus F equals two, it's known to Euler. And Buckminster Fuller interpreted the two in term of yin and yang a whole lot of balderdash.

But you see these architects; I don't know if you ever read Frank Lloyd Wright, they require all these things to... to stimulate them. So it doesn't matter... how they got there, what they get there is okay. So I was quite impressed by Buckminster Fuller, and I treated him seriously and translated his work, so I... so we made a couple of films together in which he came to Cambridge. And he described it later that he gave Caspar and Klug the mathematics. He didn't understand any mathematics but he... I... these films, I wonder where they are, they're in the archives somewhere because somebody told me they'd seen them at Open University. But the producer of these films died and so I've not been able to trace them, it was quite interesting the time with Buckminster Fuller. He... he was... he lived in a geodesic dome, I was invited, I didn't go to visit his house. I got onto his visiting list and so he would send out, you got a list every month of where he was going to be, which part of the world, including dentist's appointment, you know, anniversaries. But he was a... what he was, was a Yankee inventor in the line of Edison, unlettered but he just, you know, so you have to... I really admire and respect him, but, not as a mathematician or an architect. So that was the beginning, so that was an important paper.

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.

**Title: **Discovering the structural rules for spherical shell viruses

**Listeners:**
John Finch
Ken Holmes

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.

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.

**Tags:**
Horizon, Buckminster Fuller, Don Caspar, Francis Crick, Frank Lloyd Wright

**Duration:**
4 minutes, 10 seconds

**Date story recorded:**
July 2005

**Date story went live:**
24 January 2008