A study team lead by researchers at Purdue University unlocked the mystery of the structure of the flavivirus that causes Zika virus, the first scientists to do so, the university announced on March 31, 2016.
Co-leaders of the research team, both from Purdue University, Richard J. Kuhn and Michael G. Rossman, explained that it was those portions of the Zika virus structure that differed from other flaviviruses such as West Nile and dengue, that are of the most value to science. It will be the understanding of those differences from other viruses in the same family that will be instrumental in creating diagnostic and treatment agents as well as an eventual vaccine to protect against the illness.
While all the various flaviviruses share a similar basic structure in which RNA is surrounded by a fatty membrane that is then surrounded by a 20-sided protein shell. When one of these viruses attaches to a host cell, the virus breaks apart, replacing the healthy host cell’s DNA with that of the virus cell’s RNA.
The Zika virus cell’s differences were found to be in the outer protein shell. Zika virus has a protrusion of a carbohydrate molecule through that protein shell. This protrusion, which is surrounded by a set of amino acids unique to Zika virus, is theorized to trick the healthy host cell into accepting the viral cell, setting up the takeover of its genetic instructions.
While each of the various flaviviruses has its unique set of amino acids in the protein shell of the cell, the protrusion of the carbohydrate molecule through the exterior protein shell of the cell is noted only in the Zika virus.
Researchers are theorizing that it is this unique virus cell structure that enables the Zika virus to do what the other flaviviruses do not, namely pass through the placental barrier or the blood-brain barrier. At this stage of research into Zika virus and its link to increased cases of microcephaly in infants (placental barrier passed) and Guillain-Barre syndrome (blood-brain barrier), it is suspected that the Zika virus is able to bypass these usually impenetrable physiological barriers to infection.
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