A team of researchers has identified the proteins that make the Zika virus so dangerous. While the virus has been the focus of many studies, the exact proteins involved were unknown. The team’s new findings may lead to improved medical treatments for Zika. The details are in a paper that was just published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Zika virus is a serious disease transmitted by mosquitoes and sexual activities. Most healthy patients will only experience mild side effects, including fevers, joint pain, and muscle soreness. These symptoms go away quickly and patients might write them off as flu symptoms. For pregnant women, however, the virus becomes much more harmful. Zika causes a number of serious birth defects in developing fetuses, including microcephaly, seizures, and cognitive problems. Doctors recommend that women delay pregnancy or avoid areas with known cases of the virus. The Zika virus has been studied extensively and scientists have recently developed a working vaccine that is in early clinical trials. Even with all of this research, however, little is known about how the virus causes so much damage.
Researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine used yeast cells to study how the Zika virus affected them. Thanks to their incredibly simple genomes, fission yeasts are popular scientific models for observing cellular activity. They are also easy to study because they are single-celled and the cells are large enough to view with simple microscopes. The research team exposed fission yeasts to the proteins found in the Zika virus to see which caused cellular harm. Out of the 14 proteins studied, 7 harmed or even killed the yeast cells while others inhibited cell growth.
The team will conduct further research to investigate the proteins’ effects on human cells. The researchers don’t know if each protein is equally dangerous or if all of them work together to cause serious human birth defects.
Li et al. Characterization of cytopathic factors through genome-wide analysis of the Zika viral proteins in fission yeast. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2017).