Scientists have cracked the code used by a major group of viruses to spread infections such as the common cold, HIV, hepatitis C and polio in the human body, a finding that could lead to new drugs to combat the diseases.
Until now, scientists had not noticed the code, which had been hidden in plain sight in the sequence of the ribonucleic acid (RNA) that makes up this type of viral genome.
Researchers from the University of Leeds and University of York unlocked its meaning and demonstrated that jamming the code can disrupt virus assembly. Stopping a virus assembling can stop it functioning and therefore prevent disease.
“If you think of this as molecular warfare, these are the encrypted signals that allow a virus to deploy itself effectively,” said Peter Stockley, Professor of Biological Chemistry in the Leeds’ Faculty of Biological Sciences.
“Now, for this whole class of viruses, we have found the ‘Enigma machine’ – the coding system that was hiding these signals from us. We have shown that not only can we read these messages but we can jam them and stop the virus’ deployment,” said Stockley, who led the study.
Single-stranded RNA viruses are the simplest type of virus and were probably one of the earliest to evolve. However, they are still among the most potent and damaging of infectious pathogens, researchers said.
Rhinovirus (which causes the common cold) accounts for more infections every year than all other infectious agents put together (about 1 billion cases), while emergent infections such as chikungunya and tick-borne encephalitis are from the same ancient family.
Other single-stranded RNA viruses include the hepatitis C virus, HIV and the winter vomiting bug norovirus.
The group used single-molecule fluorescence spectroscopy to watch the codes being used by the satellite tobacco necrosis virus, a single stranded RNA plant virus.
“We have understood for decades that the RNA carries the genetic messages that create viral proteins, but we didn’t know that, hidden within the stream of letters we use to denote the genetic information, is a second code governing virus assembly,” said Dr Roman Tuma, Reader in Biophysics at Leeds.
The research was published in the journal PNAS.