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Understand how viruses work

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Orrin Schonfeld

West Lafayette, Indiana-- As the days get warmer we swap flu season for west Nile. But whatever the virus, they all do their harm by infecting cells. Now high-resolution images have revealed in stunning detail how one virus does it.

A virus is ten thousand times smaller than the head of a pin, and infects living cells. A remarkable animation, created by Purdue university researchers, was based on actual, never before seen, high-resolution images they captured of a virus called "T-4".

Structural biologist Michael Rossman and his team used two imaging techniques to take thousands of pictures of the virus as it invaded a bacteria cell. Combining the images, they learned in new detail how T-4 infects cells.

This may help scientists understand how other cell-killing machines like it wreak their havoc. "Many viruses, maybe even most viruses, will use the same kind of mechanism by which they infect cells," said Rossman, as they described in the journal Cell.

Rossmann's team saw how the viruses' baseplate, a sort of docking bay, changes shape as it latches onto the surface of its target cell. As T-4 pierces the outer surface, the protein molecules that make up the baseplate rearrange themselves, allowing T-4 to inject its DNA into the bacteria cell.

"We talk about a hexagonal-shaped base plate for the mature, infectious virus, and this is then changed into a star-shaped base plate." if T-4 can be targeted to a human cell, Rossmann says it could be used to deliver DNA for treatment of such genetic diseases as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, through gene therapy.

Working with an international team of researchers, Rossmann has also helped to decipher the intricate workings of many other viruses, including west Nile, dengue and the common cold.

Learn more about this important new research

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