Scientists from the University of Virginia School of Medicine have been studying a strange virus with incredible properties.
The virus can survive being exposed to nearly boiling acid, and the scientists believe they could use its properties in the fight against human disease, using DNA clad in almost impervious armor.
Indestructible virus: Impenetrable shield for DNA
“We’ve discovered what appears to be a basic mechanism of resistance — to heat, to desiccation, to ultraviolet radiation. And knowing that, then, we can go in many different directions, including developing ways to package DNA for gene therapy,” said Edward H. Egelman, PhD, of the UVA Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics.
The human body protects itself from foreign DNA by degrading and removing it, but this presents a major obstacle to gene therapy. By wrapping foreign DNA in this impenetrable shell, doctors would be able to introduce it to patients’ bodies without it being destroyed.
The virus is known as SIRV2 and infects a microscopic organism called Sulfolobus islandicus that inhabits almost boiling acidic hot springs. The virus survives by forcing its DNA into a structural state known as A-form, discovered by DNA researcher Rosalind Franklin over 50 years ago.
New microscope enables discovery
Researchers found remarkable similarities between the SIRV2 virus and the spores which bacteria form in order to survive in harsh environments. These spores are responsible for hard-to-treat diseases such as anthrax, and studying how they work could allow scientists to learn how to destroy them.
Egelman and his team used UVA’s new Titan Krios electron microscope to investigate the virus, which is the only one of its kind in the world. The microscope is found beneath the ground, insulated by tons of concrete, which provides the stability needed to make incredibly highly detailed observations of biological samples.
This latest study provides some of the first results from the Titan, but the microscope is predicted to allow great advances in biochemistry in general. We could be looking at a new era of groundbreaking research into DNA and the workings of life, with all of the possibilities that brings.
The findings of Egelman’s study were published in the journal Science.