We have recently found that DNA packaged in phage λ undergoes a disordering transition triggered by temperature, which results in increased genome mobility. This solid-to-fluid like DNA transition markedly increases the number of infectious λ particles facilitating infection. However, the structural transition strongly depends on temperature and ionic conditions in the surrounding medium. Using titration microcalorimetry combined with solution X-ray scattering, we mapped both energetic and structural changes associated with transition of the encapsidated λ-DNA. Packaged DNA needs to reach a critical stress level in order for transition to occur. We varied the stress on DNA in the capsid by changing the temperature, packaged DNA length and ionic conditions. We found striking evidence that the intracapsid DNA transition is 'switched on' at the ionic conditions mimicking those in vivo and also at the physiologic temperature of infection at 37°C. This ion regulated on-off switch of packaged DNA mobility in turn affects viral replication. These results suggest a remarkable adaptation of phage λ to the environment of its host bacteria in the human gut. The metastable DNA state in the capsid provides a new paradigm for the physical evolution of viruses.
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