The polymerization of protein subunits into precursor shells empty of DNA is a critical process in the assembly of double-stranded DNA viruses. For the well-characterized icosahedral procapsid of phage P22, coat and scaffolding protein subunits do not assemble separately but, upon mixing, copolymerize into double-shelled procapsids in vitro. The polymerization reaction displays the characteristics of a nucleation limited reaction: a paucity of intermediate assembly states, a critical concentration, and kinetics displaying a lag phase. Partially formed shell intermediates were directly visualized during the growth phase by electron microscopy of the reaction mixture. The morphology of these intermediates suggests that assembly is a highly directed process. The initial rate of this reaction depends on the fifth power of the coat subunit concentration and the second or third power of the scaffolding concentration, suggesting that pentamer of coat protein and dimers or trimers of scaffolding protein, respectively, participate in the rate-limiting step. © 1993, The Biophysical Society. All rights reserved.