Using a creature as hideous as any big-screen monster, scientists have produced a one-minute “horror” movie starring a menacing, spidery virus swooping in on a hapless blob of bacteria. While the shape-changing virus is clearly the villain, the bacterium is E. coli―a less than sympathetic victim. So in some ways, rooting for either is a little like choosing between King Kong or Godzilla.
With help from computer animation, the movie shows the virus latching onto the bacterium and giving it an injection of DNA that turns it into a virus factory. “It's the most detailed picture yet of how any virus attaches to a cell and what happens immediately after that to get the virus' chromosomes in,” said Michael Feiss, a professor of microbiology at the University of Iowa.
Feiss, who was not involved in the research, said his normally restrained microbiologist colleagues burst into applause when the film was shown at two recent scientific gatherings. He called the movie “creepy.” Purdue University scientists and researchers in Russia and Japan collaborated on the project, which arose from thousands of high-resolution photographs obtained with two imaging methods- electron microscope photographs of frozen viruses and X-ray crystallography.
This attacker is a common bacteria-infecting virus called bacteriophage T'4―that's related to herpes viruses. It zooms to the bacterium's surface, hovering over it momentarily before its six “legs” latch onto receptors on the victim's outer membrane.
The events leading up to the movie's next scene―the moment when the virus injects its DNA after puncturing the bacterium with a harpoon-like tube―arose from new research published in the Aug. 20 issue of the journal Cell. That paper describes for the first time how 16 types of proteins change into six smaller “legs” the virus uses to grip its victim tightly and make the injection. That knowledge could help researchers make new drugs to prevent viruses from infecting humans, said Michael Rossmann.