May 25, 2008

The Birth of a Virus, a First in Science

Although it doesn't look like much, this image is a first in science. The white spots you see are individual HIV particles assembling on the surface of an infected cell. A biophysicist and a virologist from Rockefeller University used a specialized microscope that only illuminates the surface of a cell. The work was published in the May 25 advanced online issue of Nature.

First a quick look at why this is groundbreaking. Usually light microscopes work by shining light directly through the cell, illuminating everything, inside and at the surface of the cell. The researchers brought the beam's path to a steeper angle which reflected the light's energy off of the cell's surface instead of passing through it. The result is an incredibly detailed look at what is going on at the cell's surface without having to filter out all of the other things going on inside the cell. The two researchers were the first to see a real-time view of a single particle of the HIV virus. A single infectious unit of the disease that has killed over 25 million in the last 25 years. This is the first time a virion has been imaged, and it just happened to be one of the most debilitating and worrying diseases of our time. The researchers found that it takes five to six minutes to assemble a single HIV particle.

This isn't going to be life-changing (although it may be groundbreaking) but it will help to confirm some details about virion production that have been inferred through other techniques. I just like the image and think it was a pretty innovative approach for visualizing virus assembly. The experiments definitely weren't hard or complicated and the simplicity of the experiment captures the elegance of innovation. Simply looking at a familiar process from a slightly different perspective gave simple and clear images of exactly what's going on at the cell surface, pretty cool stuff.

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