INDIANAPOLIS — Using a creature as hideous as any big-screen sci-fi monster, scientists have produced a one-minute horror movie starring a menacing, spidery virus swooping in on a hapless blob of bacteria.
While the shape-changing virus is clearly the villain, the bacterium is E. coli — a less than sympathetic victim. So in some ways, rooting for either is a little like choosing between King Kong or Godzilla.
But that’s not the point. The computer-generated short arose from research that could help scientists find new ways to combat viruses that cause everything from the common cold to AIDS.
With help from computer animation, the movie shows the virus latching onto the bacterium and giving it an injection of DNA that turns it into a virus factory.
“It’s the most detailed picture yet of how any virus attaches to a cell and what happens immediately after that to get the virus’ chromosomes in,” said Michael Feiss, a professor of microbiology at the University of Iowa.
Feiss, who was not involved in the research, said his normally restrained microbiologist colleagues burst into applause when the film was shown at two recent scientific gatherings. He called the movie “creepy.”
Purdue University scientists and researchers in Russia and Japan collaborated on the project, which arose from thousands of high-resolution photographs obtained with two imaging methods — electron microscope photographs of frozen viruses and X-ray crystallography, which gives three-dimensional pictures at the atomic scale.
Now available via the Internet, the movie opens with a virus looking like part lunar lander, squid and six-legged spider homing in on the E. coli. This attacker is a common bacteria-infecting virus called bacteriophage T4 that’s related to herpes viruses. It zooms to the bacterium’s surface, hovering over it momentarily before its six “legs” latch onto receptors on the victim’s outer membrane.
The events leading up to the movie’s next scene — the moment when the virus injects its DNA after puncturing the bacterium with a harpoon-like tube — arose from new research published in the Aug. 20 issue of the journal Cell.
Virus uses its 'legs'
That paper describes for the first time how 16 types of proteins change into six smaller “legs” the virus uses to grip its victim tightly and make the injection.
That knowledge could help researchers working to make new drugs to prevent deadly viruses from infecting humans, said one of the study’s authors, Michael Rossmann, a Purdue professor of biological sciences.
“What we’ve done certainly will be helpful for suggesting various targets for antiviral compounds, but that is yet to come,” he said.
Parag Chitnis, program director for molecular biochemistry at the National Science Foundation, said the findings also could help gene therapy researchers harness viruses to deliver therapeutic genetic material into specific cells in patients.
“This movie gives us an amazing look at how this virus — it’s really a nanomachine — does its work,” he said. “It can give us some ideas how we could use it for our own purposes.”
The research was funded in part by grants from the National Science Foundation, the International Human Frontier Science Program and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
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