This week researchers announce that they've created a perfect reproduction of a virus shell (pictured). That's the ultra-tough outer layer found on most viruses that allows them to drill into cells and reproduce.
The team of researchers at Rice took three years to produce this image, using hundreds of x-ray diffraction images to create the most detailed and accurate portrait ever made of the 5 million atoms in a virus shell. Also known as capsids, these nearly-impenetrable shells protect the integrity of viral genomes when they enter a cell and reproduce. Understanding precisely how capsids work could help researchers destroy viruses more easily.
But knowing the structure of capsids will also help scientists who hope to use modified viruses as drug delivery mechanisms. Viruses have evolved this extremely efficient way of injecting their genomes into a cell, and scientists hope to repurpose capsids, emptying out the bad viral payload and replacing it with the good kinds of genetic material used in gene therapy. Contained in this image is potentially one of the most revolutionary new drug delivery mechanisms of the early twenty-first century.
Said biochemist Jane Tao, who worked on creating the capsid structure:
Because many viruses use this type of capsid, understanding how it forms could lead to new approaches for antiviral therapies. It could also aid researchers who are trying to create designer viruses and other tools that can deliver therapeutic genes into cells.