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Structures of important plant viruses determined
Date:10/1/2008

"People have been trying to get this structural work started for decades, more than 40 years. It's been very difficult and there have been a number of obstacles, including the fact that it's very hard to make good samples of these viruses. But even after we were able to do that, and analyze the structures using x-ray diffraction and traditional electron microscopy, there were a lot of ambiguities in the results. Those techniques gave us several answers and we didn't know which was correct."

The STEM technique used at Brookhaven Lab provided the definitive answer. Though by itself, STEM cannot determine the structure of the viral protein coat, it is able to put boundaries on the number of molecules in each "turn" of the spiral-shaped structure. That is, it doesn't tell you the shape of the molecules but it can count them.

"STEM measures the number of electrons scattered from a length of filament, thereby 'weighing' the segment relative to a standard in this case, tobacco mosaic virus," said Brookhaven's Joe Wall. "Knowing the mass per unit length, the subunit size, and the axial repeat gives the number of subunits per turn." According to Stubbs, "The number of molecules per turn in the helix is the key. It allowed us to determine which structure of the alternatives we'd come up with from other techniques was correct."

One surprise was that the two viruses the scientists studied, though from unrelated families, turned out to have very similar structures: thin filaments with a spiral structure featuring just under nine molecular subunits per helical turn. "The spiral is so tightly packed that it could not be seen by conventional electron microscopy," Stubbs said.

Some scientists had predicted there would be similarities between these virus families, but there was a lot of disagreement. This study provides the first experimental evidence that they are indeed similar in shape. That could speed up the pace of discovery because what sc
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Contact: Karen McNulty Walsh
kmcnulty@bnl.gov
631-344-8350
DOE/Brookhaven National Laboratory
Source:Eurekalert

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