Biological Bullets

Biological Bullets

Viral Payload: A rhabdovirus may be 150,000 times smaller than a 9 mm bullet, but it is just as deadly. A single strand of RNA self-assembles with a helical array of proteins, viewed in this 3D animation set to Mozart’s piano sonata in C-Major These viruses infect both plants and animals, and include the rabies causing virus that is transmitted to humans by bites. Watch a 3D model of a Rabies virus:

Silver Bullet? Researchers hope to exploit the cell-invading ability of viruses to destroy cancer cells. One favorite is the vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) that infects horses and cattle, but causes only mild flu like symptoms in humans. Genetically crippled (“attenuated”) forms of VSV are safer to use and preferentially infect cancer cells by exploiting their altered signaling pathways. These oncolytic viruses hold the promise of a self-replicating biotherapy.

Image: Cryo-electron microscope image of a rhabdovirus. 

Ref: Self-organization of the vesicular stomatitis virus nucleocapsid into a bullet shape. Desfosses et al., 2013 Nat. Commun .

#ScienceEveryday   #viromania  

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71 Responses to Biological Bullets

  1. Jason Chen says:

    Will they use such science to turn us all into flesh eating zombies? Welcome to the NWO my friends…

  2. Rajini Rao says:

    You’ve been reading too many B grade novels, Jason Chen 😉

  3. Jason Chen says:

    Just kidding… actually, I really like the thought of the technology you mention. This is where our health science agencies need to be investing heavily. Rajini Rao 

  4. Rajini Rao says:


    I think so too, Jason Chen . Discovery of new chemical drugs seems to have leveled off. Time to give biological therapeutics a chance.

  5. Love the 3D model of the rabies virus. I just recently caught a news article about deaths attributed to rabies from an organ transplant.  I was puzzled that no one caught the the person died of rabies and subsequently transplanted the organs to others.  

    Rabies really scared people at one time, even Louis Pasteur was reported to be deathly afraid of contracting the virus while he was searching for a vaccine. 

  6. Rajini Rao “Researchers hope to exploit the cell-invading ability of viruses to destroy cancer cells.” – by turning it into a retro-virus?

  7. Re:  Cancer

    I had an idea recently.  Rather than curing cancer or destroying cells, can we reprogram it to regenerate good cells?  Organic nanotechnology?

  8. Rajini Rao says:

    What a nightmarish scenario for the organ receivers, Shannan Muskopf ! Who would think of screening a donor for rabies of all things. 

  9. Rajini Rao says:

    Shah Auckburaully , it is already a retrovirus. That’s a name given to viruses whose genetic material is RNA, instead of DNA.

    Edit: “retro” refers to copying the RNA into DNA, a process that is backwards relative to the usual flow of information from DNA to RNA. In this specific case, I should correct myself- even though rhabdoviruses are RNA viruses, they are not considered a retrovirus because the RNA copies on to another RNA that is used to make viral proteins. They don’t go through a DNA stage.

  10. Rajini Rao says:

    David Lazarus , cancer is really a reprogramming of normal cells as a result of many mutations and misregulations of genes. They’ve undergone too many programming changes to return to normalcy..they need to be destroyed.

  11. We need to prosecute whomever is misregulating genes.  There are obviously malicious cell programmers at work here!  :^D

  12. Eric Hopper says:

    Rajini Rao – From what I know, the DNA in cancer cells is frequently a disorganized mess. Oftentimes it doesn’t even form recognizable chromosomes anymore. Of course, maybe I’ve read the wrong things or am misremembering.

  13. Rajini Rao says:

    David Lazarus , now that I think on it, nothing could be more organic than a virus destroying a cell 🙂

  14. NEY MELLO says:

    Ladies, Gentlemen, fellow scientists: I introduce you now to: Rajini Rao, killer biologist, trained by Dirty Harry himself in the streets…well..labs of San Francisco  😀 😀

  15. Rajini Rao says:

    Eric Hopper , you’re quite right. There are breaks in chromosomes, parts moved around, small and large deletions and mutations. There’s also a lot of heterogeneity between different cells even within the same tumor. 

  16. Rajini Rao says:

    Jason Chen , cancer is definitely not a fungus! Cancer cells are one’s own cells that are dividing out of control. The sodium bicarb treatment is an attempt to alkalinize the body and increase pH. Infant thrush is a fungal infection, as you know (Candida albicans). Perhaps the alkalinization works because fungi like to grow at acidic pH.

  17. Rajini Rao says:

    I see that the programmers on G+ are identifying with the virus here 🙂

  18. Kevin Clift says:

    Dalek virus is frightening.

  19. Rajini Rao says:

    Every hospital needs a Dr. Who, Kevin Clift .

  20. Rajini Rao says:

    Thanks, Vastupal Shah . Those 4 items you mention have a lot of bioactive compounds. 

  21. yes an is jus the reason why we need to stand up as a whole and Dont allow this to happen!

  22. Amazing.  And the bullet resemblance is hard to miss

  23. Rajini Rao says:

    Quite striking, isn’t it John Christopher ? The word “rhabdovirus” comes from Greek rhabdos for rod since they didn’t have a word for bullet back in the classical times 🙂

  24. Did they have Scanning Electron Microscopes Rajini Rao or at least… words for them ??  :)))

  25. Rajini Rao says:

    John Christopher , almost! Microscope: from the Ancient Greek: μικρός, mikrós, “small” and σκοπεῖν, skopeîn, “to look” or “see”

  26. Rajini Rao says:

    Oh, this is fun, John 🙂 From Wiki: the Latin ēlectrum (also the root of the alloy of the same name), came from the Greek word for amber, ήλεκτρον (ēlektron).

  27. george m. says:

    Thanks for your info. 

    How does it replicate itself once inside the host?

    Also, how does treating them prophylaxis affect their  spread?

  28. Rajini Rao says:

     george mogaka , there are knob like protrusions on the viral surface that attach to the host cell and help the viral membrane fuse with the host membrane. Once the viral RNA gets inside, it hijacks the cellular machinery to replicate itself, with only 5 different proteins of its own. Basically, the RNA has to be transcribed into complementary RNA which carries the message (information) for making more of its 5 proteins. The virus then assembles within the host cell before getting out. 

    There is some info on prophylaxis for the rabies virus here (it’s sobering):

  29. george m. says:

    Thanks. Keep it up.

  30. Ryan Aslett says:

    I wonder if someday we’ll be able to program viruses like this to target specific species.  For example, imagine a virus that selectively destroys streptococcus mutans.  An added bonus would be that you could spread the plaque killer virus by kissing.  Though that might put a lot of dentists and hygienists out of work in one fell swoop.

  31. Rajini Rao says:

    Ryan Aslett , there already are viruses that target specific bacteria. They are called bacteriophages or phages, in short. There has been progress in using them for anti-bacterial therapy.

  32. Kevin Clift says:

    Ryan Aslett you might also like this recent article from the BBC:

  33. Rajini Rao says:

    Thanks, Kevin Clift . I was wondering where I had seen that post 🙂

  34. So for my next question, Rajini Rao (a rhetorical)… why do we even try to guess what some ancient people might have called something they never saw?  What is wrong with something like “Bulletvirus”? I think that would get the point across much more effectively than rhabd… rhabdo-wtf-&^%$!-virus 🙂 

    [[Edit: plus it may even help control our gun violence ‘epidemic’]]

  35. Deeksha Tare says:

    Thanks for sharing Rajini Rao ! 🙂

    I also can’t help but mention another interesting “bullet” – Chandipura virus. We’d always have a soft spot for it because that was the virus which we first worked with!

    Which has a very interesting story, had shared it long back…

  36. Jim Gorycki says:


    Rajini Rao I have Question.  I came down with a stomach virus last weekend.  Wrecked my whole weekend.  Started on Friday.  Didn’t feel better until Monday.  How come there is no shot.  BTW do you know a Dr. Marvin Bittner out of Creighton University. He specializes in infectious disease and immunology. My wife is related to him.  Met him for the first time several few years back.  Real smart and down-to-earth guy. I really understood him.  Interesting discussion on how they determine what goes into a flu shot.  Like a “greatest hits” of influenza.

  37. Jim Gorycki says:

    BTW reall good discussions everyone.  I understood carcinogen as a cell gone bad.  This has to do with environmental (exposure to chemicals, uv, etc) and even what we eat, smoking (I’m not preaching!) etc.

  38. Rajini Rao says:

    Deeksha Tare , thanks for the link- I remember that post on chasing down the mystery virus! Perhaps you can also chime in on my response to Jim Gorycki about vaccines.

    There are about a dozen anti-viral vaccines that are routinely administered (polio, measles, etc.). I’d have to say that there is no vaccine against your gastrointestinal virus because it may be relatively harmless and be resolved by your natural immunity within a few days. The counter argument to that is that influenza also resolves naturally in the vast majority of patients, but then it is lethal to a vulnerable few. It’s also common enough that it is worth the effort of making a new vaccine each year to keep up with the variants as they evolve.

    While I don’t know Dr. Bittner, kudos to him for discussing the basis of vaccines with friends and family. I wish every scientist and medic did a little bit of this 🙂

    Finally, a carcinogen is something that triggers cancer (such as an environmental pollutant, radiation, harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke, etc.). So it is what causes the cell to “go bad” (carcino for cancer, and gen for generate).

  39. Rajini Rao says:

    Sagnik Sarkar , regarding viruses that attack bacteria or cancer cells, it’s more like the “enemies of our enemies are our friends” 🙂

  40. Jim Gorycki says:

    Rajini Rao Again, Thank you.  Yes the gastrointestinal virus naturally goes away and is relatively harmless, there are some that will be hospitalized.  The very young — had something bad when I was a child, and the elderly, plus those with weak immune systems. I know someone who had that virus more than once in a year. 

  41. Deeksha Tare says:

    There are a dozen different viruses which might cause diarrhea in adults. To pin point which one has caused disease is difficult. Moreover, they need not necessarily have a vaccine, it’s not worth that much effort! Vaccine manufacturers need a strong reason to make a vaccine. It should be economically viable for them.

    If only fluid replacement is doing the trick and is efficiently curing the disease, then there’s no need for manufacturing a vaccine for that particular virus. 

    I with the immunity aspect too, which infants lack. And that is the reason for the disease being more pronounced in them. Majority of viral diarrhea in children is due to Rotavirus. And there exists a vaccine for the same.

  42. Rajini Rao says:

    Thanks, Deeksha Tare for a virologist’s perspective! You raise an excellent practical point about economics of the equation as well. I remember my kids receiving the rotavirus vaccine.

  43. Deeksha Tare says:

    Rajini Rao , we have been continuously taught about all that for what seems like ages now…

  44. Jim Gorycki says:

    Rajini Rao Deeksha Tare Thanks.  good point on the percentage and the economics the pharm companies have to play.

  45. Rajini Rao says:

    Hehe, one day you’ll  be glad for all the mental “drilling”. When do you graduate?

  46. Deeksha Tare says:

    Just a few months left. Around June.

  47. Rajini Rao says:

    John Christopher , you bring up the same point as mandar khadilkar on my last post: is the use of specialty jargon justified in any field? I would argue yes, because the word rhabdoviridae conveys information on the origin and history of the term and also because it is so much more beautiful to my ear than “bullet virus” 🙂

  48. Beauty is in the eye ear of the beholder Rajini Rao 🙂

  49. Ok, if you insist 🙂 it is a great idea to use gobli-goobli-do language to bring interest and energy. 😀

    We do that all the time in our team to bring back moral boost that we are going to do some shattering thing next product release.

  50. Many (if not most) of the high-tech companies I have worked with use “code names” to refer to upcoming products mandar khadilkar  .  Apple’s next OS is code named “lynx” ( that’s a beautiful name of a gorgeous animal that conjures up all kinds of ideas about speed, power, agility, and… teeth 🙂  It means something to real, live — not ancient — people…  🙂

  51. Rajini Rao says:

    Haha, I see that I have a long way to go before I convince you two!

    Language is a big deal to me: I put real effort into “word smithing” my research papers. I’ve had more than one paper/grant rejected (a common casualty) with the reviewer’s comment that, nevertheless, it was beautifully written! I consider this a small consolation prize 😛

  52. Would you get such a comment if your research paper was written in ancient Greek?  🙂  (I rest my case)

  53. Rajini Rao says:

    John Christopher : The name “lynx” originated in Middle English via Latin from the Greek word “λύγξ”, derived from the Indo-European root “leuk-“, meaning “light, brightness”, in reference to the luminescence of its reflective eyes.

    My world just became a little brighter knowing this 🙂 

    Of course, I thought about “leukocytes” which are the germ-fighting white cells of the blood 🙂

  54. I love your writing!  In fact, I wish I get you to write some articles for my senior biology students;  I teach  them is to analyze science text by trying to evaluate word meanings based on their roots, or comparing them to words they already know.   You’d be surprised how many teenagers will just stop reading an article when they get to a word or an idea they don’t know.  Your writing has such a nice rhythm and flow, I think my students would love it as much as the people here at G+ do. 

  55. Sure  Rajini Rao  .  But my point was not ‘origins’ but rather common usage and being understood by our contemporaries.  (Btw, I love your writing, too.)

  56. Btw… Rajini Rao this conversation reminds me of “Gus” in “Big Fat Greek wedding” who thought every word had Greek origins.  Even the word… “Kimono”  🙂 

  57. Rajini Rao says:

    Aww, thanks Shannan Muskopf !

    John Christopher , technical terms are not useful in communicating outside a field, I agree. But for practitioners within a field, the utility of common usage based on ancient origins is that it can help the reader decipher a new term and also serve as a memory aid (those senior biology students would like that!). Most of the terms make good sense too: for example, the unit of wavelength is lambda, which is Greek for the letter l. The same roots are used over and over again, so once you understand the origin of the word the usage follows logically.

  58. Rajini Rao says:

    I loved that movie..who was Gus, the main lead/bridegroom? 

  59. Oh,  I see, Rajini Rao in essence you are saying that esoteric terms are used to keep out the uninitiated, kind of like a secret handshake.  🙂  Btw, yes, I know the word ‘esoteric’ has Greek origins (Gus was the father of the bride)

  60. Rajini Rao says:

    Drat, you mean I can’t spam you with more Greek origins? 🙂

    OK, my last (ineffectual) attempt: technical terms are for precise and meaningful communication within and between specialists. It’s not justifiable to give them up because the uninitiated feel excluded. A better way to resolve the problem would be for the specialist to be equally comfortable and effective in communicating in lay terms. This takes effort and experience because one has to omit only those details (and jargon) that are relevant to the field but not to the lay person.   

  61. lay (adj) “uneducated; non-clerical,” early 14c., from Old French lai “secular, not of the clergy” (Modern French laïque), from Late Latin laicus, from Greek laikos “of the people,” from laos “people,” of unknown origin. In Middle English, contrasted with learned, a sense revived 1810 for “non-expert.” :)))

  62. OK, I admit it Rajini Rao , I studied ancient (and Biblical) Greek in “another life” when I attended seminary (and in other places).  I was good enough at it to ace my finals but have never used it in ‘real life’ — never met any ancient Greeks :))

  63. Rajini Rao says:

    Granting agencies instruct scientists to explain their proposals in “lay” terms; there is a separate section in every proposal for a “lay summary”…that’s how the term comes into my vocabulary 🙂 I’ve never learned Greek or Latin formally, but I wish I had! 

  64. Rajini Rao says:

    Deeksha Tare , coincidentally, after you mentioned that rotavirus causes diarrhea in infants, I went to a seminar on screening drugs to treat diarrhea. It turns out that rotavirus makes a protein (NSP4, viroporin) that releases calcium from cellular stores. The calcium then activates CACC (calcium activated chloride channel) on the enterocyte membrane and the secreted chloride results in osmotic loss of water, as diarrhea. CACC is more highly expressed in infants, compared to adults, hence rotavirus is more dangerous to children. 

  65. Deeksha Tare says:

    Wow! That’s quite an interesting piece of information Rajini Rao ! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  66. Interesting and well presented

  67. i see trouble, an can also read between the lines 😉

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