Viruses are small intracellular parasites that invade the cells of virtually all known organisms. They reproduce by utilizing the cell's machinery to replicate viral proteins and genomic material, generally damaging or killing the host cell in the process; subsequentelly, a large number of newly generated viruses go on to infect other cells. Viruses are responsible for a wide variety of human diseases, ranging from the common (influenza and colds) to the exotic (AIDS, West Nile virus and Zika). Some viruses which are not dangerous to humans can also be exploited in technological applications, in addition, viruses find use in genetic engineering applications and increasingly in the design of new nanomaterials. At the very least, all viruses contain two components: the capsid (a protein shell), and a genome, consisting of either DNA or RNA. Some viruses also include accessory proteins to aid in infection, and in some cases a lipid bilayer to further protect their contents from the environment. The viral life cycle itself is deceivingly simple: viruses enter the cell, typically (but not always) through the interaction of their capsid with a receptor on the cell surface; the virus must then somehow disassemble its capsid to release its genetic material and any necessary helper proteins. The viral genome is then replicated and the proteins it codes for are synthesized to produce the raw material for the production of new viral particles; these new viruses then assemble and bud from the cell either through the membrane or upon cell death.
Spotlight: Lung Surfactant Duality (Aug 2016)
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Our lungs are coated with a layer of protein and lipid mixture called lung surfactant, which prevents the lungs from collapsing and protects us from bacterial and viral infections (see October 2012 and January 2014 highlights). Lung surfactant protein A (SP-A) - the major protein constituent of lung surfactant - plays a dual role. It aggregates DPPC lipid, a major component of lung membrane, into a lattice-like structure that prevents the lungs from collapsing. SP-A is also known to recognize and bind bacterial lipids, namely lipid A, on surfaces of gram-negative bacteria, thereby helping to initiate various clearance mechanisms. However, it was unclear how SP-A exhibits such functional duality with its binding to two different types of lipids. A recent study used molecular dynamics simulations with NAMD to unravel the dual role of SP-A. Combined with crystallographic and mutational analyses, researchers have discovered several critical, non-canonical lipid binding sites that involves cation-π interactions and hydrogen bonds. Simulations have also revealed that SP-A binds stronger to bacterial lipid (lipid A) than to surfactant lipid (DPPC lipid), which suggests SP-A may prioritize its host defense functions by transferring from lung membrane to bacterial surface. These findings in atomistic detail will enable experimentalists to enhance the antimicrobial function of SP-A. More on our lung surfactant protein website.