A VIEW OF A VIRUS
Article by Ann Manser Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson | Photo illustration by Jeffrey Chase May 31, 2018
Research reveals new insights into hepatitis B
Researchers at the University of Delaware, working with colleagues at Indiana University, have gained new insights into the virus that causes hepatitis B — a life-threatening and incurable infection that afflicts more than 250 million people worldwide.
The discovery, which was published April 27 in the journal eLife, reveals previously unknown details about the capsid, or protein shell, that encloses the virus’ genetic blueprint.
Scientists believe that the capsid, which drives the delivery of that blueprint to infect a host cell, is a key target in developing drugs to treat hepatitis B.
“With hepatitis B, the structure of the capsid has been known for years, but we wanted to study its motion and its influence on its surroundings,” said Jodi A. Hadden, an independent postdoctoral researcher in UD’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the lead author of the new paper.
Hadden and the research team used supercomputing resources to perform what are known as all-atom molecular dynamics simulations.
Molecular dynamics simulations allow researchers to study the way molecules move in order to learn how they carry out their functions in nature. Computer simulations are the only method that can reveal the motion of molecular systems down to the atomic level and are sometimes referred to as the “computational microscope.”
In the case of the simulations of the hepatitis B virus, the researchers found that the capsid is not rigid as previously thought, but is highly flexible. They also learned that it can distort into an asymmetric shape, which might allow it to squeeze through an opening into the nucleus of a cell the virus is infecting.
“We think that the capsid might need that ability to distort in order to correctly package its genetic blueprint and get it into the nucleus to generate new copies of the virus during the infection process,” Hadden said.
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