Acta Cryst. A 70, 162–167 (2014)

Many viruses have icosahedral symmetry. So do certain 'carbon onions' — Russian doll-like arrangements of nested fullerenes. Pierre-Philippe Dechant and colleagues argue that viruses and carbon onions share the same formation principle: affine symmetry.

Imagine a set of points lying on the vertices of a regular pentagon. Duplicate the set, and translate it; then repeatedly rotate the combined set over 72° about the midpoint of the original pentagon. This results in a new set of points obeying five-fold symmetry, yet with a 2D shell structure that is more complex than that of the pentagon. A similar 'affinization' of the (3D) icosahedral group results in a set of points that are nodes in the highly complex protein network structure of, for example, the Pariacoto virus.

Dechant et al. found that affine symmetry explains the structure of experimentally observed carbon onions — a non-trivial result given that all carbon atoms in each of the nested fullerene molecules must be three-connected, that is, bound to three neighbouring carbons. In particular, they identified the extended group that, starting from buckminsterfullerene (the 'buckyball'), generates the onion C60@C240@C540.