"We have paved the way for the creation of fundamentally new, alternative approaches to fighting the flu. Now we can attack the genome of the virus or the point where its new particles come together," said Maria Amorim of the Gulbenkian Institute in Oeiras (Portugal).
Every year flu epidemics claim the lives of many thousands of people. The fight against the disease is complicated by the fact that this virus has three varieties – A, B and C, so it is difficult to predict which species will be the most common this or next year. In addition, vaccination allows you to develop immunity for just one or a few strains.
Amorim and her colleagues at the institute approached the solution of this problem from a fundamentally different side. They did not search for "universal" antibodies that are able to recognize most ready-made viral particles and analyzed how they are formed in human and other mammalian cells.
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The genetic material of the influenza virus consists, as the scientists explain, of eight isolated RNA molecules, each packed in a special protein shell that protects them at the same time against cell damage and detection, and also contains all the necessary "tools" to support their self-copying process to start.
On the one hand, this separation simplifies the lifespan of the virus in the cells, but on the other hand it considerably complicates the process of compiling its copies. In fact, the flu must not only copy and package every segment of the genome into proteins, but also connect exactly eight RNA molecules to a single viral particle.
Scientists don't know how and where this happens. It was clear that RNA molecules were copied into the core of the infected cell, and the viruses themselves formed at the boundary between the shell and the environment. On the other hand, what happened in the middle between them remained a mystery and subject of controversy among virologists.
The problem was that for a long time biologists could not find isolated structures, odd viral "assembly lines" within which new viral particles would appear isolated from the rest of the cell. Portuguese researchers proved that they still exist and discovered why no one had noticed them before by studying the "pointed" accumulations of RNA in the cytoplasm of the flu victims.
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To do this, scientists have embedded light-emitting protein molecules in each segment of the viral genome and observed their movement with microscopes. Observing their "migrations" unexpectedly showed that the virus is able to use the laws of physics to obtain a "living space" for the accurate and unhindered assembly of new specimens of themselves.
It is a fact that many liquids, when mixed together, do not mix, but are divided into separate drops or layers. Something similar happens when water and sunflower oil are poured into the same glass and then shaken. According to Amorim and her colleagues, this also happens during the flu virus assembly – it forms similar bubbles in the cytoplasm and uses them as "factories" to make new copies of themselves.
Interestingly, each viral RNA molecule and its protein shell is capable of forming a kind of "bubble" from a fluid with slightly different phase properties compared to the "normal" cytoplasm of the cell. This was a big surprise to virologists, who initially believed that these complex structures arise as a result of the interaction of different fragments of the virus genome.
As scientists assume, this process is the same for all strains of the influenza virus. Further analysis of the design and operation of these drops, as Portuguese biologists hope, will help to understand how the work of these "assembly lines" can be disrupted and protect the human body against any type of this infection.
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