The self-assembly of perfectly ordered closed shells is a challenging process involved in many biological and nanoscale systems. However, most of the aspects that determine their formation are still unknown. Here we investigate the growth of shells by simulating the assembly of spherical structures made of N identical subunits. Remarkably, we show that the formation and energetics of partially assembled shells are dominated by an effective line-tension that can be described in simple thermodynamic terms. In addition, we unveil two mechanisms that can prevent the correct formation of defect-free structures: “hole implosion,” which leads to a premature closure of the shell; and “closure catastrophe,” which causes a dramatic production of structural disorder during the later stages of the growth of big shells.

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