Probing for Weaknesses in HIV's Twisted Genome

By Eliza Strickland | August 6, 2009 1:11 pm

HIV genome structureThe genome of an HIV virus is a truly twisted thing, but now for the first time researchers have traced its every fold and contour. By mapping its entire structure, they hope to gain a greater understanding of how the virus operates, and potentially accelerate the development of drug treatments [BBC News]. Usually geneticists focus on the sequence of genes that comprise an organism’s genome, but recent evidence suggests that the structure can also play a role in how it functions.

Like many other viruses, the HIV genome consists of single-strand RNA, rather than the double-stranded DNA found in most animals. Though scientists have identified HIV’s genes and their order, just one-fifth of its genome has been described in precise spatial detail. That’s important because genomes don’t look anything like the neatly linear, bar code-like pictures returned by basic sequencing techniques. In reality, genomes are arranged in intricate, three-dimensional loops and whorls. And just as a list of machines isn’t very useful without a description of their arrangement on a factory floor, structure matters [].

Lead researcher Kevin Weeks says he hopes the findings will help scientists make better drugs to treat such viruses…. New drugs are often engineered to fit into specific structures on a virus, blocking it from attaching to a cell, for instance, or gumming up its works so it cannot replicate [Reuters].

The study, published in Nature, was carried out using chemical compounds that linked to pieces of HIV’s genome to trace its shape and arrangement. Their morphological reverse-engineering was necessary because HIV stymies standard atomic-level microscopes [].

Related Content:
80beats: New HIV Strain Came to Humans from Gorillas, Not Chimps
80beats: More Than Two Years Later, HIV Vaccine Mystery Remains Unsolved
80beats: Scientists Film HIV Jumping From Cell to Cell for the First Time

Image: Nature

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • robot makes music

    Holy effing stuff… it’s CROP CIRCLES. HIV IS CROP CICRLES!

    I would just like to point out that as long as humanity doesn’t kill itself off, it doesn’t have much to fear from the natural world other than complete cataclysm like asteroids or runaway global warming (a.k.a. venus here we come). The human mind is evolving technology *much* faster than nature has, and we’re studying nature to try to figure out what it’s learned so far.

    Within 10,000 years of founding civilization, we’ve already taken our small enemies apart to learn their weaknesses. We can take them apart and study them and fight them faster than they can adapt to us. It’s taken them hundreds of million of years to get to where they are, and within 400 years of us inventing science (the modern scientific method anyway), we’ve laid them bare.

    I wonder if a Magnetic Resonance Force microscope might be able to read their 3d shapes when it’s improved again – it’s part of what the MRFM was invented for, after all, reading virii in-situ. IBM has 4 nanometer resolution 3d scans of the tobacco mosaic virus. I believe HIV is smaller than TMV. Another problem may be that MRFM may only be able to describe the shape, but not where the ACTG’s are along the strand, which from the looks of the picture is a necessity.

    MRFM’s work at near absolute zero temperatures, so HIV would be held still for the scan.

  • patrick Odadi

    our concern as people who work in the field of HIV And AIDS Especailly in the care and treatment-is how the study that is considered a landmark will help in the treatment and care. The finding ought to be translated into practical action that will benefit the poor women in Africa inffected And living with HIVand AIDS. the finding ought to decend from merely intellectual material into practical material that would be able to find solution to prolong and improve the quality of the life of people living with HIV and AIDS

  • Dylan

    @robot makes music

    I don’t know, man, but if us intelligent mega-humans are totally outpacing all these viruses and bacteria, how come we haven’t come up with any antiviral drugs that don’t only “kinda work,” and why are a bunch of the antibiotics we came up with only 20 to 60 years ago useless now?

    Also, nice misuse of the word “evolve” there, guy.

  • dsinla81

    View the new documentary “House of Numbers” to see why questions about this new strain must be raised and deeper issues about HIV and AIDS need to be discussed. Lives are at risk, and this is the first documentary with the worlds foremost authorities highlights the scientific problems with HIV testing, science, statistics, and why there is no cure. It sheds new light on a misunderstood phenomena. GO to to see the trailer


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar