Highlights of our Work

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The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is one of the smallest human pathogens that infects liver cells chronically affecting ~250 million people globally. The breaking of the HBV capsid leads to the release of its genetic material into the host cell and therefore a key step in its infection. The capsid consists of hundreds of identical protein blocks. Using molecular dynamics simulations with NAMD we devised a mechanical stress to study the process of capsid disassembly in a simulation composed of millions of particles. Analyzing the resulting capsid cracks by VMD we show that the cracks mainly occur within a particular (hexameric) protein arrangements. More importantly, only a small subset of the capsid proteins are engaged in initiating the disassembly. The majority of such hot-spot residues are conserved through evolution, hinting at their importance in the viral infection process, probably by destabilizing the capsid to the right degree. Read more in the Beckman Institute press release and the published article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Sound amplification is a key step in hearing, without which the brain would not detect the majority of sounds generated in our surroundings. The key protein responsible for sound amplification is a motor protein called prestin in the inner ear. After decades of research, high-resolution structures of prestin were recently obtained by cryo-EM, revealing how the protein's shape change in response to electrical signals "shakes" the hair cells in the inner ear, thereby amplifying the sound to the level that is detectable by neurons. In collaboration with structural biologists at Oregon Health and Science University who solved the protein structures, and employing NAMD and VMD, the Center's researchers shed light on how prestin transmits its structural change to the cellular membrane and thereby shakes the hair cell in our auditory system. Read more about the study in Cell and in the U. Illinois Biophysics Press Release.

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