Researchers in China have generated the initial images of the COVID-19 virus in a significant milestone on the path to discovering a vaccine and cure.
Dr Sai Li, who is a structural biologist at Tsinghua University in Beijing, collaborated with virologists who were creating the virus in a biosafety lab in the city of Hangzhou.
They rendered the virus harmless with a chemical and sent a sample of virus-filled fluid to Li.
He and his team decreased the virus to a single drop, and Li flash-froze it, then observed it through a cryo-electron microscope.
‘I saw a screen full of viruses,’ Li told the New York Times as he observed the virus that measured less than a millionth of an inch.
‘I thought, I was the first guy in the world to see the virus in such good resolution.’
These new images are modeled around the world in an attempt to understand how the virus works
Li’s work has helped scientists to understand how the virus and some of its proteins to slide into cells.
They discovered how its twisted genes dominate the body’s biochemistry.
Researchers have investigated how some viral proteins operate to wreak havoc on our cellular factories, while others build conservatories for creating new viruses.
Some other researchers are employing supercomputers to create totally, virtual viruses that they want to use to discern how the real viruses have circulate with such outrageous ease.
‘This time is unlike anything any of us has experienced, just in terms of the bombardment of data,’ said Rommie Amaro, a computational biologist at the University of California at San Diego.
Amaro and her team have been investigating the proteins, dubbed spikes, that stud the virus’s surface.
The spikes are wielded by a virus to attach onto cells in our airways so that the virus can enter.
Her team, with the help of Li’s imagery, discovered that the spikes were not rigid, but were continually flexing.
Gerhard Hummer, a computational biophysicist at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics, and his partners used Li’s technique to take images of spike proteins entrenched in the virus membrane, and then create models which revealed that the spikes were whirling on three hinges.
‘You can see these flowers waving with all kinds of bending angles,’ Hummer said. ‘It’s quite surprising to have such a long, slender stalk with so much flexibility.’
Hummer speculated that the spikes are flexible so they can swivel and have the utmost opportunity of attaching to cells in the airways.
Their flexibility also imply, that they are more susceptible to attack from antibodies.
Sugar molecules function as a defense for the spikes, whirling around them and defending them from the antibodies, scientists presently know.
When infected people breathe out, talk or cough, they expel tiny drops of water loaded with viruses. It’s not apparent how long COVID-19 can endure in these drops.
Amaro intends to build these drops, down to their solitary water molecules, on her computer and then add viruses and inspect what happens to them.