How does 'flu infect cells?

13 December 2009

Question

How does 'flu actually infect our cells?

Answer

Chris - The way flu gets hold of cells is down to proteins on the surface of the virus particle. Each virus particle is tiny, about 1/10,000th for the millimetre across. If you could zoom in on the surface, you'd see that it had these spikes on the surface. These spikes are a structure called haemagglutinin, which is a tiny protein resembling a molecular grappling hook. It's viral Velcro. It gets hold of something called sialic acid, which is a chemical on the surface of the cells that line our nose and throat, and this enables the virus to grab hold of those cells and pull itself in very close. Through this interaction the cell thinks the virus is something that it has to take inside the cell. So the cell then does something called receptor-mediated endocytosis, which basically means it pulls the virus inside the cell. Once inside the virus releases it's genetic material and productively infects the cell. It's a bit like a Trojan horse actually because the Trojan horse was this juicy tidbit sitting outside the gate of Troy. The guys inside the city thought, "Wow! That looks fantastic. We'll pull that inside because it looks good." And it goes inside the city. And then of course, lurking inside are all these people who are then wreak havoc inside the city. And that's basically what a flu virus does. It hijacks the cell, turns it into a virus factory and then it infects all of the cells around it and all the people around you!

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