d and then flash-frozen, creating a solid form of ice that is more like clear glass than the typical crystalline form in ice cubes.
Once inside the electron microscope, electrons bombarded the samples from myriad angles, magnifying it more than 43,000 times to reveal its surprising structure –- absent the degree of distortion caused by the more typical imaging methods involving drying and staining of specimens.
As a result, the researchers were able to hone in on the envelope –- the lipid membrane covering the virus itself. They imaged the spikes protruding from the envelope, which contain the only viral protein molecules on the HIV surface. The FSU scientists also were able to capture super-sized images of both the head of the spike and its supporting stalk. The spike head is responsible for binding the virus to the target cell. Its stalk is responsible for the fusion event in which HIV injects its genes into the human host cells for which the virus has a natural affinity –- T lymphocytes and macrophages.
‘Antibodies that effectively bind to either of these spike parts will neutralize the virus to prevent infection,’ said Roux, a member of FSU's biological science faculty since 1978.
His biggest surprise: the stalk has legs.
‘Researchers thought the spike stalk was comprised of a tight collection of three rods bound together with the head of the spike perched on top. But our images reveal that the stalk is split into three legs, spread more like a tripod, which increases their contact with the viral membrane,’ Roux said. ‘Seeing the tripod stalk suggests a novel mechanism by which HIV-1 is able to so effectively fuse with our cells. That essential knowledge should help us design better weapons to fight the virus.’
FSU Arts and Sciences Dean Joseph Travis has declared the work ‘a beautiful example of what happens when strong, sound basic science is applied to a very difficult problem.’
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