Biologists build better software, beat path to viral knowledge

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Insight into the workings of previously inscrutable viruses has been made possible by a team of biologists whose improvements to computer software may one day contribute to the fight against viral disease.

With a few deft lines of computer code, Purdue University's Wen Jiang and his research group have created a powerful new tool for lab research that should allow scientists to obtain high-resolution images of some of the world's smallest biological entities - the viruses. Too minuscule to be usefully observed with many conventional imaging devices, viruses' internal structures must often be viewed with microscopes that require sophisticated computer control to make sense of the tiny objects. Advances in the field often come to those who can create the best custom software, and Jiang's team has done just that, opening up for observation a group of viruses that scientists previously could not get a bead on.

As the team reports in the cover article of this week's (Feb. 2) edition of Nature, the researchers have used their methods to examine one such virus that attacks bacteria.

"While before we could only see virus parts that were symmetric, we can now see those that have non-symmetric structures, such as portions of the one our paper focuses on, the Epsilon 15 virus that attacks salmonella," said Jiang, who recently joined Purdue's College of Science as an assistant professor of biology. "This software will enable a substantial expansion of what we can see and study. We remain limited to observing those viruses that are identical from one individual viral particle to the next - which, sadly, is still only a small portion of the viral species that are out there. But it is a major step forward toward our goal of seeing them all."

Jiang conducted the work while at Baylor College of Medicine with that institution's Juan Chang, Joanita Jakana and Wah Chiu, as well as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Peter W

Contact: Chad Boutin
Purdue University

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