Salmonella phage P22, which serves as an assembly paradigm for icosahedral double-stranded DNA viruses, packages its viral genome through a capsid channel (portal) comprising 12 copies of a 725-residue subunit. Secondary and tertiary structures of the portal subunit in monomeric and dodecameric states have been investigated by Raman spectroscopy using a His6-tagged recombinant protein that self-assembles in vitro [Moore, S. D., and Prevelige, P. E., Jr. (2001) J. Biol. Chem. 276, 6779-6788]. The portal protein exhibits Raman secondary structure markers typical of a highly α-helical subunit fold that is little perturbed by assembly. On the other hand, Raman markers of subunit side chains change dramatically with assembly, an indication of extensive changes chanoes in side chain environments. The cysteinyl Raman signature of the portal consists of a complex pattern of sulfhydryl stretching bands, revealing diverse hydrogen-bonding states for the four S-H groups per subunit (Cys 153, Cys 173, Cys 283, and Cys 516). Upon assembly, the population of strongly hydrogen-bonded S-H groups decreases, while the population of weakly hydrogen-bonded S-H groups increases, implying that specific intrasubunit S-H···X hydrogen bonds must be weakened to effect dodecamer assembly and that the molecular mechanism involves reorganization of subunit domains without appreciable changes in domain conformations. Comparison with other viral protein assemblies suggests an assembly process not requiring metastable intermediates. The recently published X-ray structure of the φ29 portal [Simpson, A. A., et al. (2000) Nature 408, 745-750] shows that residues 125-225 lining the channel surface form α-helical modules spaced by short β-strands and turns; a surprisingly close secondary structure homology is predicted for residues 240-350 of the P22 portal, despite no apparent sequence homology. This motif is proposed as an evolutionarily conserved domain involved in DNA translocation.