The structure of tomato bushy stunt virus has been determined crystallographically to 2.9 A resolution. Details are presented of both the molecular structure and the methods by which it has been solved. The icosahedrally symmetric viral shell is composed of 180 protein subunits (Mr 43,000), with three similar but distinct modes of subunit bonding. This capacity for alternative packing is due to localized flexibility in the folded polypeptide (hinges between domains) and to multiple conformations for surface side-chains. The polypeptide backbone has an essentially invariant fold within a compact domain. A mechanism for correct positioning of the different modes of subunit interaction is evident from the structure of the TBSV particle. Thirty-five residues of the polypeptide chain fold in an ordered way on 60 of the 180 subunits, forming an internal framework. Interaction of folded domains with this framework permits accuracy of long-range geometry (correct curvature and closure) to be determined by unambiguous switching between alternative local contact angles. RNA packs tightly into the particle interior. Protein-RNA interactions occur through parts of the subunit that are flexibly linked to the well-ordered domains of the shell. This variable interaction imposes minimum restrictions on the folding of the RNA chain.