The study may provide clues to how similar viruses infect cells and suggest ways for developing a new class of antibiotics and other drugs to prevent illnesses caused by viral pathogens.
Scientists at Purdue University have solved the three-dimensional structure of the bacteriophage T4 virus, a virus that resembles a lunar lander in both its looks and intricate workings.
The study, published in the Jan. 31 issue of the journal Nature, reveals for the first time how the virus binds to the surface of the host, punctures the cell wall with a syringe-like tube and injects its own genetic blueprint into the cell. This genetic information then sets the cell's machinery to work creating replicas of the virus.
"Though the T4 virus has been studied extensively in the past, this study provides the first detailed information on the virus structure and how it works," says Michael Rossmann, Hanley Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at Purdue who directed the study.
Bacteriophage T4 is a virus that infects only bacteria, in this case E. coli, a bacteria used extensively in molecular biology research. The study of bacterial viruses such as T4 is useful in understanding many basic functions in biology, Rossmann says.
"This particular study tells us a great deal about how a virus infects a cell," he says. "These processes tend to be quite general, so mechanisms used by one virus often are similar to mechanisms used by other viruses, including those that infect humans."
Bacteriophages may play a future role in controlling disease-causing bacteria, says Kamal Shukla, the National Science Foundation project officer for this research.