Scientists identify novel approach to view inner workings of viruses

January 12, 2012

Since the discovery of the microscope, scientists have tried to visualize smaller and smaller structures to provide insights into the inner workings of human cells, bacteria and viruses. Now, researchers at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), part of the National Institutes of Health, have developed a new way to see structures within viruses that were not clearly seen before. Their findings are reported in the Jan. 13 issue of Science.

Cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) is a technique that allows scientists to image very small particles, like structures on the surface of viruses. This method has been useful in helping researchers understand how vaccines work. But, despite the success of cryo-EM, scientists have been unable to clearly visualize structures inside of viruses, because radiation is used to image them. "With lower doses of radiation, it is not possible to see inside the organism," said lead author Dr. Alasdair Steven of the NIAMS Laboratory of Structural Biology Research. "However, higher doses of radiation damage the virus, destroying the very structures that we would like to view."

Working in collaboration with the group of Dr. Lindsay Black at the University of Maryland Medical School, Baltimore, Steven and his team were able to turn the problem of into an asset. Viruses, one of the simplest life forms, are made up of (DNA or ) and the proteins encoded by the nucleic acid instruction manual. The researchers realized that proteins inside the virus are more sensitive to damage than DNA.

"We first used low doses of radiation and recorded images in which the inner structure of the virus was invisible," said Steven. "Next, we used high doses of radiation, and found that the inner structure could be seen as a cylinder of bubbles." While the inner structure was damaged, the team was able to superimpose the images, using three-dimensional computer reconstruction. As a result, they were able to clearly visualize the viral structure. The investigators call this technique bubblegram imaging.

Moving forward, the team members anticipate many uses of bubblegram imaging. Ideally, this technique will allow a better understanding of the inner workings of viruses, providing more opportunities for developing novel therapies. Beyond studying viral structure, cryo-EM could be used to visualize interactions of proteins with DNA in . One exciting prospect lies in using this approach to visualize differences in cancer vs. non-cancer cells. "This new cryo-EM procedure renders previously invisible proteins visible and, thus, will provide new understanding of cell biology," said Steven.

Explore further: Molecular anatomy of influenza virus detailed

Provided by: NIH/National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases


Related Stories

Molecular anatomy of influenza virus detailed

December 30, 2006

Scientists at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., and colleagues at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville ...

Structures of important plant viruses determined

October 1, 2008

Flexible filamentous viruses make up a large fraction of known plant viruses and are responsible for more than half the viral damage to crop plants throughout the world. New details of their structures, which were poorly ...

New images may improve vaccine design for deadly rotavirus

June 11, 2009

Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers are reporting the first detailed molecular snapshots of a deadly gastrointestinal virus as it is caught in the grasp of an immune system molecule with the capacity to destroy it. ...

Cryo-electron microscope 'sees' atoms for first time

May 4, 2010

( -- UCLA researchers report in the April 30 edition of the journal Cell that they have imaged a virus structure at a resolution high enough to effectively "see" atoms, the first published instance of imaging ...

Recommended for you

Scientists use CRISPR technology to edit crop genes

November 30, 2015

CRISPR gene-editing is allowing rapid scientific advances in many fields, including human health and now it has been shown that crop research can also benefit from this latest exciting technology.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.