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Posts Tagged ‘virion

Covid 19: How the SARS-CoV-2 virion does its thing

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filched from The Economist, a US website

Canto: We’ve been lapping up the excellent Medcram series of videos on the pandemic, and we’re now at episode 32 I think, from March 6, and a week’s a long time in Covid-19-world.

Jacinta: Yes and back then the largest number of confirmed cases outside of China was in South Korea, and that, I now understand, was largely because of the massive testing they’d engaged in – so elsewhere the infection was being under-reported, or barely known about.

Canto: And today, April 23, South Korea has dropped down to 27th on the list of reported cases. Interesting to note that by March 6 South Korea had tested some 140,000 people, almost 100 times more than the USA had done. As we know, the CDC had stuffed up by producing a flawed testing kit, which resulted in crucial delays.

Jacinta: And weren’t the South Korean tests more effective? They used a different type of test didn’t they?

Canto: According to a Bloomberg article referred to in the video, South Korea’s tests had a 95% sensitivity rate, much higher than those of the USA at the time. But neither the article nor the video went into detail about the type of test.

Jacinta: So I think the standard type of test used is called PCR, or RT-PCR, which means reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction, but I don’t really know what that means or how the tests work.

Canto: We’ll look at how the tests work later. Let’s use this video 32 to help us understand how this virus gets into a host cell and replicates.

Jacinta: Ok, so we have a cell with its nucleus, and its DNA in there, and outside the nucleus is the cell’s cytoplasm containing organelles such as ribosomes, mitochondria, lysosomes, microtubules and the like. The DNA is transcribed into single-stranded precursor messenger RNA. The RNA is then transported into the cytoplasm, where it’s modified, giving it a ‘five prime cap and a poly-A tail’. So one end has its nucleotide altered by the enzyme guanyl transferase. It has to be a guanine nucleotide connected to the mRNA with a particular triphosphate linkage. The poly-A tail is a string of adenine bases. These modifications form what’s called post-transcriptional RNA processing. Then the ribosome, about which we’ve learned so much from Venki Ramakrishnan, reads the mRNA from the five-prime end to the three-prime end. That’s in the ‘positive’ direction. It reads the nucleotides three at a time and comes up with a code (here it gets a bit vague), so that when three particular nucleotides line up, ‘a specific amino acid has to be placed on there’. And transfer RNA is involved here. So a by-product of this process is a protein (consisting of amino acids), made by the ribosome. That’s translation, not so clearly explained. Anyway, proteins are the central building blocks of our bodies, without which not.

Canto: Okay, sufficient unto the day. And remember, this transcription/translation process is known as ‘the central dogma of molecular biology’, in case you’re tested. Now we’ll turn to the virion. So the cell membrane that the virus needs to penetrate is a lipid bilayer. That bilayer is hydrophilic on the outside (that’s facing out from the cell and into the cell) and lipophilic on the inside. The coronovirus has the same lipid bilayer, with embedded proteins, notably the s-proteins or spike proteins which we know are used to attach to host cells. There are other structural proteins such as m-proteins (membrane proteins) and e-proteins (envelope proteins). Inside is the large RNA genome, protected by n-proteins (nucleocapsid proteins). Presumably there are other proteins too. Now, note that this is one virion, which is the built structure housing the virus (what enables it to survive for however long outside of a host), but also including the virus itself, which is essentially the genome. For the virus to replicate and spread, all those structural proteins have to be reproduced too.

Jacinta: The s-protein just happens to fit, like a key in a lock, a receptor protein in the human host cell membrane called the ACE-2 receptor. These ACE-2 receptors, full name angiotensin-converting enzymes, are found in our lungs, and elsewhere, such as the heart, the kidneys and the intestines. Once this connection is made, the viral RNA is released into the cytosol. And as it happens, this viral RNA also has a 5 prime cap and a poly-A tail just like the host’s mRNA. It isn’t clear from the video whether this is because it gets modified within the cytoplasm or it’s already ‘primed’ so to speak. Anyway, the cell’s ribosomes start to act on this rogue RNA as it would on its own mRNA. Meanwhile the structural proteins from the viral membrane are incorporated into the host membrane, possibly earmarking it for destruction.

Canto: The ribosome makes a protein from the viral RNA, called RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRP), or an RNA replicase. The protein somehow makes another complementary strand of RNA, running in the opposite direction, from which the ribosome makes more protein, which makes more RNA and so forth. This RNA also codes for the structural proteins of the virion (because the RdRP somehow forms shorter strands of RNA, called sub-genomic RNAs, specific to the making of those proteins by the hijacked ribosomes), so enabling the spread of the virus.

Jacinta: The key, the video tells me, is in the name polymerase. That’s an enzyme that puts nucleotides together in long chains. Also, many ribosomes – there are thousands in our cells – are connected to the cell membrane and can help create new virions that can leave the cell in much the opposite way they entered, being packaged and then budded off. Through this hijacking process, one virion can come in, and any number of them can go out, and generally from the lung region. They’re naturally attacked by the immune system causing inflammation, possibly pneumonia and respiratory failure.

Canto: Yes and thanks to Dr Roger Seheult for all this, we hope we’re not misreading his work. He goes on to talk about the possibility of inhibiting this nasty polymerase, RdRP. We might talk about this, or not, in the next post.

References

Coronavirus update 32, with Dr Seheult – series of videos

https://www.economist.com/briefing/2020/03/12/understanding-sars-cov-2-and-the-drugs-that-might-lessen-its-power

The gene machine, by Venki Ramakrishnan

Written by stewart henderson

April 25, 2020 at 2:04 pm