Virus filmed for first time while infecting a cell

First Posted: Jan 11, 2013 03:01 PM EST

For the first time, a virus has been observed and "filmed" in detail in the act of ejecting its genetic material in a host cell, infecting it. The research, appearing in Science Express, reveals some unknown changes in the structure of a virus as it infects an E. coli bacterium.

This fascinating process has now been observed in a virus called T7 and visualized by Ian Molineux, professor of biology in the College of Natural Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, and colleagues at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UT Health) Medical School.

To infect a cell, a virus must be able to first find a suitable cell. In 'search mode', this particular virus briefly extends - like feelers - one or two of six ultra-thin fibers it normally keeps folded at the base of its head - a feature unknown until now.

Once landed on a suitable host that has been located, the virus extends these fibers to walk randomly across the surface of the cell and find an optimal site for infection - the first experimental evidence for this.

At the preferred infection site, the virus goes through a major change in structure in which it ejects some of its proteins through the bacterium's cell membrane, creating a path for the virus's genetic material to enter the host.

After the viral DNA has been ejected, the protein path collapses and the infected cell membrane reseals.

"Although many of these details are specific to T7, the overall process completely changes our understanding of how a virus infects a cell," said Molineux.

This is also the first time that scientists have made actual images showing how the virus's tail extends into the host - the very action that allows it to infect a cell with its DNA.

Molineux and the team used a combination of genetics and cryo-electron tomography to image the infection process. Similar to CT scans, cryo-electron tomography is scaled to study objects with a diameter a thousandth the thickness of a human hair.

Co-authors of the research are Bo Hu, William Margolin and Jun Liu from UT Health.

See Now: NASA's Juno Spacecraft's Rendezvous With Jupiter's Mammoth Cyclone

©2017 All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission. The window to the world of science news.

Join the Conversation

Real Time Analytics