Maturation of noninfectious nodavirus provirions occurs by autoproteolytic cleavage of most of the 180 copies of the alpha-protein that make up the icosahedral capsid. This maturation, which is much slower than viral assembly, produces an infectious particle that is more stable than the provirion and makes viral uncoating thermodynamically distinct from assembly, allowing assembly and (a time-delayed) uncoating to occur under similar conditions. The results of structural, computational, and molecular genetic studies suggest that maturation depends both on intrasubunit strain, produced during assembly, and on a critical aspartic acid residue. This residue lies in a hydrophobic pocket that is stabilized by intersubunit contacts. It is close to the scissile bond and exhibits an environmentally elevated pKa. The apparent involvement of a single acidic residue in the hydrolytic cleavage of a peptide bond contrasts with the involvement of 2 such residues in acid proteases.