Site search
Back to listing
The biological mechanisms the herpes virus uses to infect people.

Credit: Dr David Bhella/MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research

Nobel Prize-winning technology reveals common herpes virus structure

5 Jul 2018

For the first time, MRC researchers have been able to use the Nobel Prize-winning technology, cryo-electron microscopy, to reveal the detailed structure of the common herpes virus.

Researchers at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research used the cutting-edge technique to reveal, in high resolution, the biological mechanisms the herpes virus uses to infect people. The findings are published in PLOS Biology.

The researchers hope that these findings could lead to the development of new drugs to treat the virus.

The herpes family include the viruses that cause both cold-sores and chicken pox. Members of this family of viruses can also cause cancers and severe illnesses in unborn children.

However, at only 1/10,000th of a millimetre in diameter, the capsid – or shell – the herpes virus uses to store its DNA and infect its host, has until now been difficult for scientists to analyse.

Herpes viruses cause infection by introducing their DNA into our cells. To do this, they package their DNA inside a protective coat called a capsid. The capsid is spherical in shape and highly symmetrical.

The researchers used cryo-electron microscopy to reveal the structure of a motor-like assembly called a portal. Herpesviruses pump their DNA into preassembled capsids through the portal. When a herpes virus infects our cells, the DNA is ejected from the capsid by the same portal machinery.

Study lead author Dr David Bhella, from the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, said: “Cryo-electron microscopy, combined with new computational image processing methods allowed us to reveal the detailed structure of the unique machinery by which the virus packs DNA into the capsid. The DNA is packed very tightly, reaching a pressure similar to that inside a bottle of Champagne.”

As well as revealing the shape of the portal machinery, this study also revealed how the virus packs its DNA inside the capsid. Individual strands of DNA were seen to be wound up in a spool, rather like a ball of wool.

Dr Richard Henderson at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry alongside Professor Jacques Dubochet and Dr Joachim Frank for developing cryo-EM for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution.

Dr Jonathan Pearce, Head of Infections and Immunity at the MRC, said: “Dr Bhella and his team have now used this technique to elucidate the structure of the herpes virus, revealing a ‘molecular machine’ that is involved in virus replication. The findings provide scientists with a better understanding of the virus and its anatomy, and, in turn, an insight into potential new therapeutic targets.

“These elegant experiments exemplify the potential of the Scottish Centre for Macromolecular Imaging due to be launched later this year at the CVR, which will support vital research into diseases posing the greatest threat to human health.”

The study, ‘Structure of the herpes-simplex virus portal-vertex’ is published in PLOS Biology. The work was funded by the MRC.

Dr David Bhella shows the structure of herpes simplex virus for the first time in a 3D construction.

This paper is available on Europe PMC.


  • Categories: Research
  • Health categories: Cancer, Infection, Injuries, Skin, Generic
  • Locations: Glasgow
  • Type: News article