Friday, August 14, 2009

An ‘aerial view’ of HIV

The complex shapes that the HIV genome twists itself into have been totally mapped by the first time by a team of US researchers. RNA viruses such as HIV like to fold themselves up and a proper picture of the shapes they form has been lacking, with researchers generally confining themselves to looking at small sections. In this week’s, Joseph Watts, of the University of North Carolina, and his colleagues set out to look at the bigger picture.

In the research paper, Hashim Al-Hashimi of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, notes that structural biologists usually “cut out” the motifs formed by RNA and then “zoom in to determine their three-dimensional structures in an attempt to further understand their function. … However, Watts et al. zoom out and provide an ‘aerial view’ of the secondary structure of the entire HIV-1 genome.”

What they produced is, in Wired’s words, “the cellular equivalent of a rough wiring diagram”. “What this may reveal is some of the proteins operating at a level below the structures, which may have all sorts of functions within the virus,” says David Robertson, of the University of Manchester (BBC). “More generally, if we can unpick the structures then we can compare the systems of different viruses and gain new understanding of how they work.” Study author Kevin Weeks says the technique used here with HIV could also be applied to other virus such as influenza and might open up new opportunities for drug treatmen.

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