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: Simulating an Entire Life Form (Mar 2006)


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Viruses, the cause of many diseases, are the smallest natural organisms known. They are extremely primitive and parasitic such that biologists refer to them as "particles", rather than organisms. Viruses contain in a protein shell, the capsid, their own building plan, the genome, in the form of DNA or RNA. Viruses hijack a biological cell and make it produce from one virus many new ones. Viruses have evolved elaborate mechanisms to infect host cells, to to produce and assemble their own components, and to leave the host cell when it bursts from viral overcrowding. Because of their simplicity and small size, computational biologists selected a virus for their first attempt to reverse-engineer in a computer program, NAMD, an entire life form, choosing one of the tiniest viruses for this purpose, the satellite tobacco mosaic virus. As described in a recent report, the researchers simulated the virus in a small drop of salt water, altogether involving over a million atoms. This provided an unprecedented view into the dynamics of the virus for a very brief time, revealing nevertheless the key physical properties of the viral particle as well as providing crucial information on its assembly. It may take still a long time to simulate a dog wagging its tail in the computer, but a big first step has been taken to simulate living organisms. Naturally, this step will assist modern medicine (more on our satellite tobacco mosaic virus web page).

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  • Mature HIV-1 capsid structure by cryo-electron microscopy and all-atom molecular dynamics. Gongpu Zhao, Juan R. Perilla, Ernest L. Yufenyuy, Xin Meng, Bo Chen, Jiying Ning, Jinwoo Ahn, Angela M. Gronenborn, Klaus Schulten, Christopher Aiken, and Peijun Zhang. Nature, 497:643-646, 2013.
  • Cyclophilin A stabilizes HIV-1 capsid through a novel non-canonical binding site. Chuang Liu, Juan R. Perilla, Jiying Ning, Manman Lu, Guangjin Hou, Ruben Ramalho, Gregory Bedwell, In-Ja Byeon, Jinwoo Ahn, Jiong Shi, Angela Gronenborn, Peter Prevelige, Itay Rousso, Christopher Aiken, Tatyana Polenova, Klaus Schulten, and Peijun Zhang. Nature Communications, 7:10714:(10 pages), 2016.
  • Dynamic allostery governs cyclophylin A-HIV capsid interplay. Manman Lu, Guangjin Hou, Huilan Zhang, Christopher L. Suiter, Jinwoo Ahn, In-Ja L. Byeon, Juan R. Perilla, Christopher J. Langmead, Ivan Hung, Peter L. Gor'kov, Zhehong Gan, William Brey, Christopher Aiken, Peijun Zhang, Klaus Schulten, Angela M. Gronenborn, and Tatyana Polenova. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 112:14617-14622, 2015.
  • Atomic modeling of an immature retroviral lattice using molecular dynamics and mutagenesis. Boon Chong Goh, Juan R. Perilla, Matthew R. England, Katrina J. Heyrana, Rebecca C. Craven, and Klaus Schulten. Structure, 23:1414-1425, 2015.
  • HIV-1 capsid function is regulated by dynamics: Quantitative atomic-resolution insights by integrating magic-angle-spinning NMR, QM/MM, and MD. Huilan Zhang, Guangjin Hou, Manman Lu, Jinwoo Ahn, In-Ja L. Byeon, Christopher J. Langmead, Juan R. Perilla, Ivan Hung, Peter L. Gor'kov, Zhehong Gan, William W. Brey, David A. Case, Klaus Schulten, Angela M. Gronenborn, and Tatyana Polenova. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 138:14066-14075, 2016.
  • All-atom molecular dynamics of virus capsids as drug targets. Juan R. Perilla, Jodi A. Hadden, Boon Chong Goh, Christopher G. Mayne, and Klaus Schulten. Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, 7:1836-1844, 2016.
  • Molecular dynamics simulations of the complete satellite tobacco mosaic virus. Peter L. Freddolino, Anton S. Arkhipov, Steven B. Larson, Alexander McPherson, and Klaus Schulten. Structure, 14:437-449, 2006.
  • Stability and dynamics of virus capsids described by coarse-grained modeling. Anton Arkhipov, Peter L. Freddolino, and Klaus Schulten. Structure, 14:1767-1777, 2006.
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