Bioethics Blogs

Snapshots of Life: Imperfect but Beautiful Intruder

Credit: Boon Chong Goh, Beckman Institute, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The striking image you see above is an example of what can happen when scientists combine something old with something new. In this case, a researcher took the Rous sarcoma virus (RSV)—a virus that’s been studied for more than century because of its ability to cause cancer in chickens and the insights it provided on human oncogenes [1, 2]—and used modern computational tools to generate a model of its atomic structure.

Here you see an immature RSV particle that’s just budded from an infected chicken cell and entered the avian bloodstream. A lattice of proteins (red) held together by short peptides (green) cover the outer shell of the immature virus, shielding other proteins (blue) that make up an inner shell.

The image is the creation of Boon Chong Goh, a graduate student in the NIH-supported lab of Klaus Schulten in the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Goh named the image “Imperfect Intruder” because the immature virus is still in its noninfectious stage. As the particle matures, the short peptides (green) will be cut from the outer lattice (red), allowing a total rearrangement of the particle into a closed spherical structure. Until then, the imperfect intruder is especially vulnerable to drugs that block its maturation. Goh’s knack for building sophisticated viral models is not only of potential interest to the poultry industry, but to research on the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which is quite similar in structure to RSV.

To make this image, Goh analyzed existing structural data on RSV proteins and developed algorithms to model their atomic structures.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.