Scientists built a coronavirus from scratch to see how it mutates

In order to learn more about how the coronavirus reproduces and survives, scientists built one from scratch.

Before we start worrying about lab leaks and conspiracy theories, the researchers in question haven’t made a full-scale new Covid-19 disease.

Instead, they’ve created a minimalist versions of the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen that’s not quite a functioning virus, but is enough for them to study.

Scientists from the UK and Germany came up with the ‘synthetic minimal virions’ (basically, the lab-grown particles) to gain insights into how it mutates.

They were able to see how the corona (crown) spike proteins work to unlock the cells known as ACE2 receptors and infect a host.

These spikes are also what antibodies latch onto to fight the virus – and what vaccines target.

Focusing on the way specific fatty acid-type immune molecules interact with the spikes, the researchers found something interesting. It appears the spike proteins on the virus undergo a structural change when it the immune molecule grabbed it.

‘By “ducking down” of the spike protein upon binding of inflammatory fatty acids, the virus becomes less visible to the immune system,’ explained Oskar Staufer, from the University of Oxford.

‘This could be a mechanism to avoid detection by the host and a strong immune response for a longer period of time and increase total infection efficiency.’

This structural change is an insight into how the live virus may be so good at mutating and surviving.

‘Applying such synthetic biology concepts to a problem with global impact is truly exciting,” Staufer added.

The research was published in the journal Nature Communications.

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