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Virus live stream will allow scientists to study infections in real-time

A virus tries to replicate (green dots) after it infects a host cell by trying to prevent it from interfering with viral replication by attacking the host cell's nucleus (blue) and shutting-down protein production of the host cell (red). Photo by Sanne Boersma/Hubrecht Institute
A virus tries to replicate (green dots) after it infects a host cell by trying to prevent it from interfering with viral replication by attacking the host cell's nucleus (blue) and shutting-down protein production of the host cell (red). Photo by Sanne Boersma/Hubrecht Institute

Nov. 13 (UPI) -- Want to study viral infections in real time? Just tune into the live stream.

Researchers in the Netherlands have developed a new microscope technology that can be combined with a novel virus-tagging technology to observe viral particles as they invade and replicate inside cells.

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The breakthrough, detailed Friday in the journal Cell, could help scientists better understand RNA-viruses like the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

RNA-viruses, like the coronavirus, carry their genetic coding in the form of RNA, or ribonucleic acid, as opposed to DNA. RNA-viruses work by hijacking infected cells and converting them into factories for viral replication.

Until now, the best scientists could do was capture isolated snapshots of this process, but with the new tag-and-track technology, researchers can watch this hostile takeover in real time, from start to finish.

The tracking project begins with SunTag, a very bright fluorescent tag that attaches to proteins on the virus.

Once the virus and its proteins have been tagged with the fluorescent marker, researchers can use the microscope technology VIRIM -- short for virus infection real-time imaging -- to observe the virus as it enters a cell and begins producing proteins with the infected cell's own machinery.

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Thankfully, cells aren't entirely defenseless. They're designed to combat invaders, and when an RNA-virus shows up uninvited, they do just that.

In the lab, researchers used their new tracking method to watch enterovirus invade human cells. Researchers were able to watch as the host cells raced to thwart the invasion.

"These host cells were infected by a virus, but the virus failed to replicate," first study author Sanne Boersma, researcher at the Hubrecht Institute, said in a news release.

The research team helped the cells win the competition against the enterovirus invaders by boosting their defense system. When the host cells received an early boost, they were able to remain infection free.

"The first step in the replication process is the Achilles' heel of this virus: this moment determines whether the virus can spread further," Boersma said. "If the host cell does not manage to eliminate the virus at the very beginning of an infection, the virus will replicate and win the competition."

Researchers suggest the combination of SunTag and VIRIM can help scientists identify the phases of a virus infection, and pinpoint the junctions when and where the virus is most vulnerable.

"Understanding viral replication and spreading can help us determine the Achilles' heel of a virus," Boersma said.

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"This knowledge can contribute to the development of treatments, for example a treatment that intervenes during a vulnerable moment in the virus' life," she said. "That allows us to create more efficient therapies and hopefully mitigate the impact of viruses on society."

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