The standard pathway for virus infection of eukaryotic cells requires disassembly of the viral shell to facilitate release of the viral genome into the host cell. Here we use mechanical fatigue, well below rupture strength, to induce stepwise disruption of individual human adenovirus particles under physiological conditions, and simultaneously monitor disassembly in real time. Our data show the sequence of dismantling events in individual mature (infectious) and immature (noninfectious) virions, starting with consecutive release of vertex structures followed by capsid cracking and core exposure. Further, our experiments demonstrate that vertex resilience depends inextricably on maturation, and establish the relevance of penton vacancies as seeding loci for virus shell disruption. The mechanical fatigue disruption route recapitulates the adenovirus disassembly pathway in vivo, as well as the stability differences between mature and immature virions.
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