Viral Harpoon Structure Suggests Measles, HIV And Ebola Viruses Related

March 26, 1999–When viruses infect cells, they employ molecular "harpoons" to snare their intended target. Recently, a team of scientists identified and determined the three-dimensional structure of the harpoon protein used by a large family of pathogenic viruses to grab hold of and fuse to host cells. Surprisingly, the protein's structure suggests that viruses that cause measles and mumps may be viral cousins of HIV, influenza and Ebola virus.

The research team, which included Robert Lamb of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Northwestern University, believes that its discovery may help lead to the development of drugs that can prevent viral infections by jamming this critical infectious machinery. The researchers reported their findings in the March 26, 1999, issue of the journal Molecular Cell.

Lamb and Northwestern University colleagues Theodore Jardetzky, Kent Baker and Rebecca Dutch were studying a member of the paramyxovirus family, which includes the viruses that cause measles, mumps and respiratory syncytial viral infection (RSV) – a leading cause of hospitalization in young children. Other paramyxoviruses cause croup, pneumonia and bronchitis in young children, and members of this family can infect a variety of mammals and birds.

The scientists crystallized the fusion protein of a paramyxovirus that infects monkeys and used x-ray crystallography to determine the protein’s three-dimensional structure. This analytical process involves shining an intense x-ray beam through a protein crystal, and then deducing the protein’s structure by analyzing the patterns of light that emerge from the crystal.

Although the scientists studied the fusion protein of only one paramyxovirus, they are confident that the structural finding applies to the entire paramyxovirus family. Previous analyses of the basic "primary" structure –

Contact: Jim Keeley
Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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