New understanding of complex virus nano-machine for cell puncturing and DNA delivery

Researchers have learned how the bacterial virus, bacteriophage T4, attacks its host, the E. coli bacterium. This discovery could eventually lead to a new class of antibiotics.

Funded primarily by the National Science Foundation and published in the January 31, 2002 issue of the journal Nature, the research describes for the first time how the virus uses a needle-like, biochemical puncturing device to invade its host.

"We show, in its entirety, a complex machine that allows a virus to efficiently infect its unfortunate host cell, the E. coli. The baseplate portion of the virus tail is essential in this process," says lead researcher Michael Rossmann of Purdue University. Rossmann conducted the research with colleagues Shuji Kanamaru, Petr Leiman, and Paul Chipman of Purdue University, Victor Kostyuchenko and Vadim Mesyanzhinov of the Shemyakin-Ovchinnikov Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry (Russia), and Fumio Arisaka of the Tokyo Institute of Technology (Japan).

Because of increasing resistance of infectious bacteria to pharmaceutical antibiotics like penicillin, new antibiotic tools are needed. Bacteriophages may play a future role in controlling disease-causing bacteria. "Knowing the exact mechanism of T4 bacteriophage infectivity is a significant breakthrough. This information could eventually help in creating "designer viruses" that could be the next class of antibiotics," said Kamal Shukla, the NSF project officer for this research.

Although only about a hundred nanometers in length and width, bacteriophage T4 is considered the "Tyrannosaurus rex" of bacteriophages as it is one of the largest of the bacterial viruses. It is also a "tailed virus" because it has a tail with fibers that are used to grip its host. The tailed viruses are very common; up to one billion phages can exist in a milliliter of freshwater.

The T4 virus consists of a head, tail, baseplate, and tail fibers - six that are

Contact: Andrea M. Dietrich
National Science Foundation

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