Molecular anatomy of influenza virus detailed

December 29, 2006

Scientists at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., and colleagues at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville have succeeded in imaging, in unprecedented detail, the virus that causes influenza.

A team of researchers led by NIAMS' Alasdair Steven, Ph.D., working with a version of the seasonal H3N2 strain of influenza A virus, has been able to distinguish five different kinds of influenza virus particles in the same isolate (sample) and map the distribution of molecules in each of them. This breakthrough has the potential to identify particular features of highly virulent strains, and to provide insight into how antibodies inactivate the virus, and how viruses recognize susceptible cells and enter them in the act of infection.

"Being able to visualize influenza virus particles should boost our efforts to prepare for a possible pandemic flu attack," says NIAMS Director Stephen I. Katz, M.D., Ph.D. "This work will allow us to 'know our enemy' much better."

One of the difficulties that has hampered structural studies of influenza virus is that no two virus particles are the same. In this fundamental respect, it differs from other viruses; poliovirus, for example, has a coat that is identical in each virus particle, allowing it to be studied by crystallography.

The research team used electron tomography (ET) to make its discovery. ET is a novel, three-dimensional imaging method based on the same principle as the well-known clinical imaging technique called computerized axial tomography, but it is performed in an electron microscope on a microminiaturized scale.
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The mission of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), a part of the Department of Health and Human Services' National Institutes of Health, is to support research into the causes, treatment and prevention of arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases; the training of basic and clinical scientists to carry out this research; and the dissemination of information on research progress in these diseases. For more information about NIAMS, call the information clearinghouse at (301) 495-4484 or (877) 22-NIAMS (free call) or visit the NIAMS Web site at http://www.niams.nih.gov.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) -- The Nation's Medical Research Agency -- includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.

Harris A, et al. Influenza virus pleiomorphy characterized by cryoelectron tomography. PNAS 2006;103(50):19123-19127.

NIH/National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases

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