First Hi-Res Picture of a Virus's Shell

Scientists create an image of the five-million-atom-large capsid

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To protect itself, a virus like the one shown here uses a protein shell to seal off its genetic payloadJ. Tao and J. Pan (Take a closer look!)

After three years of piecing together hundreds of individual x-ray images, researchers were able to produce the first high-resolution picture of the five million atoms that make up a virus's protective shell. The yellow- and red-colored ribbons were highlighted to illustrate how four identical proteins join to form the building block of the blue-hued shell, or capsid, of the Ps V-F penicillin fungus-attacking virus.

The virus does not infect humans, but its shape is similar to those that do, making it a valuable model for developing future medical treatments. "If we know how to package a virus, we could apply that information to gene-therapy delivery mechanisms and disease control," says Yizhi Jane Tao, an assistant professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Rice University.