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Genetically modified viruses serve as a tool for biological research

Viruses that become harmless become carriers of the genes.

Natural viruses are small molecular machines: they infect host cells very efficiently and cause the production of viral particles. Most are smaller than the shortest wavelength of visible light. Not only have viruses been known as dangerous pathogens since SARS-CoV-2, but genetically modified organisms are serving as tools for biological research. For example at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (Ista) in Klosterneuburg, a “Virus Service Team” is building reduced versions of different viruses to make them usable as genetic shuttles for science. Thus it is possible to introduce genetic material into cells, differentiate cells with it and change cell functions. Then, the growth mechanisms, movements and metabolic activities in cells can be followed step by step.

Their only job is to smuggle proteins

“Simply put, the virus particle consists of an outer protein envelope, sometimes surrounded by an extra shell made of lipids, and the viral genome, which describes how to make more of it,” explains virologist Flávia Leite. Ista modified viruses are used, which are no longer dangerous. Instead of their original genetic material, they carry the required gene into the cells with which they are infected. There they can also be incorporated into the genetic code of the affected cell. “The viruses can therefore penetrate cells, but they are not contagious and cannot spread to a new host. Once the researchers use them in an experiment, the virus’s genetic shuttles are practically used. Your only job is to deliver proteins into cells.”

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For example, a green fluorescent protein can be produced with “gland-associated viruses”. The target cells then glow green under the microscope when they are irradiated with ultraviolet light. In addition to green, there are also blue, red and yellow fluorescent proteins. This allows many structures to be marked in color in order to monitor their development. In collaboration with the Virus Service, a group led by Edward Hanzo of Ista recently succeeded in discovering a new physical mechanism that regulates stem cells in the gut of mice. (temperamental nature).