Cryo-electron microscopy of single particles offers a unique opportunity to detect and quantify conformational variation of protein complexes. Different conformers may, in principle, be distinguished by classification of individual projections in which image differences arising from viewing geometry are disentangled from variability in the underlying structures by ''multiple particle analysis''-MPA. If the various conformers represent dynamically related states of the same complex, MPA has the potential to visualize transition states, and eventually to yield movies of the dynamic process. Ordering the various conformers into a time series is facilitated if cryo-EM data are taken at successive times from a system that is known to be developing in time. Virus maturation represents a relatively tractable dynamic process because the changes are large and irreversible and the rate of the natural process may be conveniently slowed in vitro by adjusting the environmental conditions. We describe the strategy employed in a recent analysis of herpes simplex virus procapsid maturation (Nat. Struct. Biol. 10 (2003) 334-341), compare it with previous work on the maturation of bacteriophage HK97 procapsid, and discuss various factors that impinge on the feasibility of performing similar experimental analyses of molecular dynamics in the general case.
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