Watch a tiny virus take a constitutional under a laser-powered 3D microscope

If youre anything like me, you expend a significant portion of the day wondering about the paths viruses take when theyre cruising around your internals. Luckily for us, a newly developed microscope from Duke researchers can show the exact track taken by the little critters (?), down to the micrometer.

The system, designed by a squad led by deputy professor Kevin Welsher, isnt like a traditional microscope. Instead of exaggerating an image using natural or augmented sunlight, it scans a laser through a small volume repeatedly and from multiple slants. This illuminates special fluorescent particles, the positions of which can be tracked over time.

Attach one of those particles to something else and you are able to way what its doing. Its kind of like a mocap studio for microbiology. But until recently, those particles were too big to attach to viruses imagine trying to do your Gollum impression with basketballs taped all over your body. Welshers team lately improved the power of the system enough that it can see much smaller dots and even fluorescent proteins constructed right into the viru system. The outcome, as you assure up top, is quite a detailed little way!

Simple, right?

Im reminded of the old Family Circus cartoons, with Billy or whoever going all over the neighborhood, petting dogs, tracking dirt on the neighbours porch and so on. Except Billy is a lentivirus, and the neighborhood is the soupy exterior of a cell membrane.

Its not all just for kicks, of course: The objective is to be able to watch as a virus builds contact with a cell and does whatever it does to penetrate and infect it. That moment, so critical to understanding viral behaviour, is poorly understood because its been nearly impossible to find directly.

What we are trying to investigate is the very first contacts of the virus with the cell surface how it calls receptors, and how it sheds its envelope, told Welsher in a Duke news release. We want to watch that process in real hour, and to do that, we need to be able to lock on to the virus right from the first moment.

With this system, were a step closer to understanding one of the most sophisticated biological machines ever created. The teams work is published the coming week in the periodical of the Optical Society.

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