Zurich – Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich have been successful in their attempts to mimic a decisive step in the evolution of viruses: the formation of a structure that can store genetic material. This will also be instructive for the development of future vaccines, cell therapies and drug delivery mechanisms.

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH) have successfully traced a key step in the evolution of viruses in a laboratory setting. Led by the professor emeritus at the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences, Donald Hilvert, the research team were able to modify a bacterial protein so that it acquired the ability to form a viral shell able to store the genetic material of the virus, details of which can be found in a press release issued by the university. To achieve this, the researchers used a protein from the bacterium Aquifex aeolicus, which is found in hot springs.

In the bacteria, 60 of these proteins form a hollow shell, otherwise known as a protein capsid. They are very similar to virus shells, but cannot yet interact with RNA. To do this, they were modified with the help of genetic engineering so that they could attach themselves to any RNA molecule. The researchers then imitated biological evolution in a multi-stage experiment in rapid succession.

Together with colleagues from the University of Leeds and University of York in the UK, the researchers ultimately demonstrated that the RNA molecule was modified over the course of these artificial evolutionary processes in such a way that they are stored in the capsules, as is the case with many familiar virus families. “This could be similar to the way RNA viruses evolved billions of years ago”, Hilvert hypothesizes in the press release.

His team is now keen to understand how such shells have managed to learn in the course of evolution how to escape from one cell before penetrating another where the genetic material can be released. According to ETH Zurich, this is not only important for explaining virus evolution, as the development of virus-like particles also offers a wide range of applications, for example in vaccines, cell therapy and drug delivery mechanisms.

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