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UW scientists unravel critical genetic puzzle for flu virus replication

Like any other organism, an influenza virus's success in life is measured by its genetic track record, its ability to pass on genes from one generation to the next.

But while much is known about the genes and inner workings of flu viruses, how the microbe organizes its genetic contents to seed future generations of viruses has remained an enduring mystery of biology.

Now, with the help of a long-studied flu virus, an electron microscope and a novel idea of how the virus aligns segments of RNA as it prepares to make virions, the particles a virus creates and sends forth to infect cells, that puzzle has been resolved.

The new work, which is reported in this week's (Jan. 26, 2006) edition of the journal Nature, is important because it presents opportunities to design new antiviral drugs and harness flu viruses for speedier, more efficient vaccine production. The work is especially critical as the biomedical community and governments worldwide develop strategies to cope with the prospect of an avian influenza pandemic.

"We've found that the influenza virus has a specific mechanism that permits it to package its genetic materials" as it creates its infectious particles, says Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine professor and a leading influenza researcher. Kawaoka is also a professor at the University of Tokyo.

Viruses, including influenza viruses, depend on the cells of their hosts to survive. They infect cells and use them to help make more infectious particles, which are released from the cell and go on to infect other cells.

Using a technique known as electron tomography, a method that enables scientists to generate three-dimensional images of microscopic organisms and structures, Kawaoka and his colleagues, in virtual fashion, dissected a virus and its infectious particles to assess how the virus assembles and organizes the strands of RNA that carry its genes so it can exit
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Source:University of Wisconsin-Madison


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