A virus isn't much more than a small capsule of proteins with a little bit of DNA inside. Once it gets inside a eukaryote cell, it's very much in the position of a small child wandering into a big city. In front of it lies the vast interior of the cell, full of reactions, enzymes, proteins scurrying too and fro, mRNA being translated, proteins being folded and other busy bustling cellular processes. Surrounding it are large organelles (larger than the virus particle!) with strange and mysterious procedures going on inside them...
From here, the virus has to make its way to the nucleus, pushing its way through the crowded and complex cellular interior without being spotted as an intruder. Fortunately it has some help here, because it's facing the same problem faced by every molecule and organelle already in the cell. Transport mechanisms are already in place so that things can move around the large intracellular space with relative ease. The viruses simply hijack these transport systems and get a free ride all the way too the nucleus.
Work on the herpes simplex virus helped to produce a model of how the viral particles move around the cell. After entering the cell through the cell surface membrane, the virus is picked up by dynein which carries it along microtubes towards the nucleus. The microtubules form a network within the cell (like train rails) which the dynein motors along (using ATP energy). This is shown pictorally below:
Dynein moves in one direction along the microtubule while kinesin moves in the other direction. Together they move molecules all around the cell.
Once at the nucleus, the viral DNA enters through the nuclear membrane and is replicated inside the nucleus (entering the nucleus is a critical step for DNA-viruses; for those viruses that contain RNA this step is not so vital). The replicated DNA then comes back out of the nucleus and is transcribed into protein in the cytoplasm, which leads to the formation of new viral particles. These new viruses then have to travel back down the microtubule (carried by kinesin) to the outer membrane of the cell where they can be released into the surrounding environment and go on to infect more cells.
One interesting question is what exactly the dynein (and kenesin) bind to on the virus cell surface. As well as being an interesting point, answering this comes with the usual funding bait that if you find how viruses move inside the cell you may be able to find ways of stopping them from moving which would leave them at a severe disadvantage. To examine this the virus was isolated and the parts of the surrounding protein coat that bound to cellular factors further separated. These separated capsid proteins were then tested for their ability to bind to mammalian intracellular proteins. They found that several of the capsid proteins could bind to important transporter molecules, and furthermore that several different transporter molecules could sometimes bind to the same capsid protein.
Kerstin Radtke, Daniela Kieneke, André Wolfstein, Kathrin Michael, Walter Steffen, Tim Scholz, Axel Karger, Beate Sodeik (2010). Plus- and Minus-End Directed Microtubule Motors Bind Simultaneously to Herpes Simplex Virus Capsids Using Different Inner Tegument Structures PLoS Patholgens, 6 (7) : e1000991
Drawing showing the site of attachment of the motor transport proteins to the (green) virus capsule. The other end of the motor proteins is used to move along the microtubule.
As I'm in a fairly syntheticly-biological mood, I couldn't help but notice the mention at the end of the paper that this could have implications beyond virus treatment or vaccinations. The ability to create a little molecule that the cell can carry to the nucleus could have implications for both future genetic treatments and nanotechnology. The ability to get a little capsule of treatment right to the nucleus of cells could even have the potential for treating cancer cells, as it utilizes the cells own transport mechanisms to deliver treatment to the intracellular place it is needed.
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