Ebola virus contains transformer protein with multiple functions

Researchers from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) discovered that an Ebola virus protein can transform into three different shapes, each with a separate critical survival function, according to a study recently published in Cell.

VP40, a protein known for its role in creating and releasing new copies of the virus from infected cells, can alter its shape and create three distinct assemblies. Erica Ollmann Saphire from TSRI and her team analyzed the structure of the protein at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) microbeam facility at Stanford's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory to determine the functions of the individual structures, Phys.org reports.

Saphire's team combined X-ray data with biological experiments to test the structures.

"This approach allowed us to track not only where the different structures are located, but also what they do inside the cell," Saphire said, according to Phys.org.

The researchers found that each VP40 structure is connected to a specific stage of the virus life cycle, with one shape used for moving around in host cells, one that regulates how the genetic information of the virus is copied and one that plays a role in the creation of new copies of the virus.

Zachary Bornholdt, a researcher with TSRI, said the new perspective on VP40 could provide important clues for the development of potential antiviral drugs, Phys.org reports.

"The more we are able to define VP40's structures and functions, the more we can expand what we can do with this information," Bornholdt said, according to Phys.org. "Our data suggest, for instance, that it might be more effective to target the ring than the other structures because only a small fraction of all VP40 molecules form the ring in the course of the viral life cycle."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers Ebola a category A bioterrorism agent.