The team are the first to observe at a single-molecule level how the genetic material (genome) that forms the core of a single-strand RNA virus particle packs itself into its outer shell of proteins. Lead researcher Professor Peter Stockley said their results overturn accepted thinking about the process and could open a chink in the armour of a wide range of viruses.
"If we can target this process, it could lead to a completely new class of anti-virals that would be less likely to create resistant viruses than existing drugs, which tend to target individual proteins," Professor Stockley said.
A number of important viruses like the common cold and polio have RNA (ribonucleic acid) instead of DNA as their genetic material. The observations reveal that the viruses' RNA initially has a much greater volume than the virus particles created after they are packed inside their protein shell.
"We realised that the RNA genome must have to be intricately folded to fit into the final container, just like when you pack to go on holiday and need to fold your clothes to fit into the space in your suitcase," said co-author Dr Roman Tuma from the University of Leeds' Faculty of Biological Sciences.
When the team added proteins to the viral RNA they saw an immediate collapse in its volume.
"It seems that viral RNAs have evolved a self-folding mechanism that makes closing the 'viral suitcase' very efficient. It's as though 'the suitcase and the clothes' work together to close the lid and protect the content," Dr Tuma said.
"The viral RNAs, and only the viral RNAs, can do this trick of folding up to fit as soon as they see the 'suitcase' coming. That's the important thing. If we can interfere in that process we've got a completely novel drug target in the lifecycle of viruses," Professor Stockley said.
"At the moment there are relatively few antiviral drugs and they tend to target enzymes that the virus encodes in its genome. The problem is that the drugs target one enzyme initially and, within the year, scientists are identifying strains that have become resistant. Individual proteins are extremely susceptible to this mutation. A fundamental process like the one we're looking at opens the possibility of targeting the collective behaviour of essential molecules, which could be much less susceptible to developing resistance," explained Professor Stockley.
The same phenomenon is seen in both bacterial and plant viruses. "While we have not proved it yet, I would put money on animal viruses showing the same mechanism too," Professor Stockley added.
The team used sophisticated instrumentation custom built at the University that allowed them to make the first ever single-molecule measurements of viral assembly. This allowed researchers to observe individual viral particles one at a time. "The specific collapse, which can only be seen in such assays, was totally unexpected and overturns the current thinking about assembly," Professor Stockley said.
The team also includes PhD student Alexander Borodavka, whose Wellcome Trust studentship funded the new research. They have recently secured a grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to extend their research.
"We're now perfectly positioned to pursue questions about how this mechanism works in other viruses and we're already thinking about ways to start designing new antiviral drugs that would target this newly recognised feature of viral lifecycles," Professor Stockley said.
The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Neil Ranson, Mark Harris, Ade Whitehouse, Peter Stockley, Sheena Radford, Alan Berry, Wellcome Trust (Mar 2016), £1,000,000
Katie Field, BBSRC (Jan 2016), £830,381
Alan Berry, Alex Breeze, Adam Nelson, BBSRC (Jan 2016), £479,490
Alan Berry, Wellcome Trust (Oct 2015), £752,365
Julie Aspden, MRC (Oct 2015), £633,020
Steve Sait, NERC (Oct 2015), £386,061
Urwin, Howard Atkinson, BBSRC (Oct 2015), £200,293
Eric Hewitt, Andrew Macdonald, Yorkshire Kidney Research Fund (Oct 2015), £46,621
Ade Whitehouse, Alison Ashcroft, Ian Carr, BBSRC (Sep 2015), £438,975
Dave Westhead, Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research
Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (Sep 2015), £430,567
Shaunna Burke, Andrea Utley, Sarah Astill, Arts Council of England (Sep 2015), £80,594
Samit Chakrabarty, Ronaldo Ichiyama, Intl Foundn for Research in Paraplegia (Aug 2015), £93,000
Eileen Ingham, John Fisher, EPSRC (Jul 2015), £1,458,439
Anastasia Zhuravleva, BBSRC (Jul 2015), £483,019
Alex O'Neill, MRC (Jul 2015), £249,822
Ade Whitehouse, Richard Foster, Cancer Research UK (Jul 2015), £201,034
Ronaldo Ichiyama, Jim Deuchars, Sue Deuchars, Wings For Life Spinal Cord Research (Jul 2015), £123,895
Helen Miller, ABNA Ltd (Jul 2015), £22,968
Martin Stacey and colleagues in FMH, MRC (Jun 2015), £426,475
Adrian Goldman, Sarah Harris, Roman Tuma, BBSRC (Jun 2015), £420,693
Elwyn Isaac, EU (Jun 2015), £238,915
Christine Foyer, BBSRC (Jun 2015), £160,401
Adrian Goldman, EU (Jun 2015), £116,331
David Brockwell, Sheena Radford, Innovate UK (Jun 2015), £113,378
Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, EPSRC (Jun 2015), £93,672
Michelle Peckham, Peter Knight, Thomas Edwards, BBSRC (May 2015), £404,987
Michelle Peckham, Ed White, Peter Knight, BHF (May 2015), £208,184
Dave Westhead, Sheena Radford, Alex Breeze, BBSRC (May 2015), £51,021
Steve Clapcote, Vitaflo International Ltd (May 2015), £33,703
Les Firbank, Joe Holden, Pippa Chapman, NERC (Apr 2015), £388,726
Samit Chakrabarty, David Steenson, BBSRC (Apr 2015), £120,103
Paul Millner, Gin Jose, Sarah Aickin, DSTL Porton Down (Apr 2015), £63,407
Chris Hassell, David Lewis, The Physiological Society (Apr 2015), £6,900
Andrew Tuplin, Royal Society (Mar 2015), £15,000
Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, Royal Society (Mar 2015), £14,770
Patricija Van Oosten-Hawle, Royal Society (Mar 2015), £13,960
Stuart Egginton, BHF (Mar 2015), £272,979
Keith Hamer, Department of Energy & Climate Change (Mar 2015), £58,066
Andrew Macdonald, Yorkshire Kidney Research Fund (Mar 2015), £41,171
Les Firbank, DEFRA Dept for Env. Food & Rural Affairs (Feb 2015), £20,000
Ian Hope, Marie-Anne Shaw, BBSRC (Jan 2015), £381,998
Paul Knox, BBSRC (Jan 2015), £5,000
Andrew Peel, BBSRC (Jan 2015), £359,077
Christine Foyer, BBSRC (Jan 2015), £408,334
Dave Westhead and colleagues in Experimental Haematology, Cancer Research UK (Jan 2015), £700,521
Mike McPherson, Christoph Walti, DSTL Porton Down (Jan 2015), £625,125
Sheena Radford, Mark Harris, Peter Stockley, Alan Berry, Alex O'Neill, Thomas Edwards, Adrian Goldman, Anastasia Zhuravleva, Wellcome Trust (Jan 2015), £443,015
Alison Ashcroft, Peter Stockley, Sheena Radford, Nicola Stonehouse, David Brockwell, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (Jan 2015), £340,937
Bill Kunin, EU (Jan 2015), £157,490
John Colyer, Leeds Teaching Hospitals Charitable Fund (Jan 2015), £40,000
Chris Hassall, Royal Society (Dec 2014), £14,500
Ryan Seipke, Royal Society (Nov 2014), £13,700