Scientists Are Peeling Back the Layers of the Zika Virus

The more we know, the easier it will become to fight the virus.

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Jan 13 2017, 11:00am

Image: theilr/Flickr

As researchers fervently search for a vaccine for Zika, a virus that causes birth defects, a new study gives us a better look of what we're dealing with.

Having a better idea of the structure of a virus will help other researchers understand its nuances as they work to create a vaccine and plan strategies to contain Zika, which began spreading across South America, Central America and the Caribbean in 2015. A study published this week in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology shows what an immature Zika virus looks like.

Researchers found the genome of the virus is cased inside multiple layers, including a lipid membrane, an envelope protein, a precursor membrane protein and a capsid protein. The capsid protein's location was an especially important discovery, the study stated, because that protein is important in the process of creating more viruses.

Thick black arrows indicate the densities between the inner RNA core and the viral membrane in immature ZIKV. Image: Nature Structural and Molecular Biology

"I think these findings open the door to begin to explore the assembly process of the virus," said Richard Kuhn, director of the Purdue Institute of Inflammation, Immunology and Infectious Disease, in a release. "We see clear differences between the structure of the immature virus and the mature virus... We need to study what these changes are and why they occur."

Using cryo-electron microscopy, researchers looked at the virus at a resolution of 9 Ångstroms, about 1,000 times better resolution than a traditional light microscope can manage, the release states.

Zika is a flavivirus, and they are known to be enveloped viruses. Imagine an onion's layers, and you have a rough picture of what the layering inside a flavivirus looks like. Other layers researchers mapped out are also important in understanding how the Zika virus works, such as the envelope protein, which helps the virus attach itself to a host cell to spread.

The immature Zika viruses tested were created by using mosquito cells that were infected by with the virus. The researchers prompted the viruses to replicate, and then took a look at the immature versions of the virus.

While mature viruses usually are responsible for causing the spread of a virus, understanding the virus at all stages is an important step toward creating a preventative medicine or cure, the study stated. Viruses in general are notoriously difficult to cure with medicine—everything from the flu to AIDS are viruses—and often the host has to wait for their body to fight off the virus, but vaccines that give the human host immunity are more common (hence flu shots). Of course, anti-viral medicines exist, but so far researchers have been more focused on creating a preventative vaccine.

Zika has been a persistent and misunderstood virus, but new research could herald a better way to stop it from harming more families.

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